Monday, November 21, 2016

What evil looks like

People who perpetrate cruelty do not look any different outwardly than anyone else. "We can all become beasts," said Chris Hedges.

Deborah Feldman:

"'Hitler had chicken feet, you know,' Bubby remarks. 'That's why he never took off his shoes. So they wouldn't see he was a sheid, a ghost.' She scrubs at the burned remains of chicken fricassee on the bottom of a cast-iron skillet, her calloused fingers marked by years of housework. I don't think this world is such a simple place, in which bad people have deformities that mark them as evil. That's not how it works. Evil people look just like us. You can't take off their shoes and know the truth."

Their problems are inside. They may be immature, naïve, not in possession of knowledge of any civil way to deal with their traumas. If they run the state, the state will be cruel.

Clive James:

"In the long run, the Banality of Evil interpretation of human frightfulness is not quite as useful as it looks. It helps us appreciate the desirability of not placing ourselves in a position where the rule of justice depends on natural human goodness, which might prove to be in short supply. But it tends to shield us from the intractable facts about human propensities. * * * Educated in a hard school of bombed refugee camps, the Arab torturer was trying to show his clueless American victim what it felt like to be helpless. It is possible that all torturers are attempting to teach their own version of the same lesson. But in that case we are bound to consider the further possibility that anyone might be a torturer. The historical evidence suggests that on the rare occasions when a state begins again in what a fond humanitarian might think of as a condition of innocence, a supply of young torturers is the first thing it produces. Certainly this was true of Pol Pot's Cambodia."

Yet their crimes may be unusual and elaborate, "interesting" in the cursed sense.

Norman Mailer:

"Eichmann, superficially speaking, was a little man, an ordinary man in appearance, and vulgar and dull, but to assume therefore that evil itself is banal strikes me as exhibiting a prodigious poverty of imagination."


Chris Hedges. I Don't Believe in Atheists, Chapter 4.

Deborah Feldman. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. pp. 95-96.

Clive James. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. (2007) New York: Norton, 2008. p. 277-278.

Norman Mailer. The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. New York: Random House, 2004. p. 150.

Inconsistencies in crediting success and suffering to God

On the inconsistency of crediting success and suffering to God:

Some people credit mainly good things to God. In his memoir, Donald Miller wrote of his immature concept of a "slot-machine God:" "If something nice happened to me, I thought it was God, and if something nice didn't, I went back to the slot machine, knelt down in prayer, and pulled the lever a few more times."

Christopher Hitchens wrote in God is not Great:

"But the human wish to credit good things as miraculous and to charge bad things to another account is apparently universal. In England the monarch is the hereditary head of the church as well as the hereditary head of the state: William Cobbett once pointed out that the English themselves colluded in this servile absurdity by referring to “The Royal Mint” but “The National Debt.” Religion plays the same trick, and in the same way, and before our very eyes. On my first visit to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, a church that was built to celebrate the deliverance of Paris from the Prussians and the Commune of 1870-1871, I saw a panel in bronze which showed the exact pattern in which a shower of Allied bombs, dropped in 1944, had missed the church and burst in the adjoining neighborhood..."

Deepak Chopra wrote: "As they surveyed the wreckage of their lives, the dazed survivors mumbled the same response: I'm alive only by the grace of God.They did not consider (nor express out loud) that the same God might have sent the storm."

Other people tend toward anger at God for their suffering. Rick Warren wrote in his bestseller The Purpose Driven Life: "People often blame God for hurts caused by others. This creates what William Backus calls 'your hidden rift with God.'" Another possibility is that a cosmic force of evil, the opposite of God, perpetrates injury. The effect, however, is the same. "The more that Satan is guilty, then the more that Adam is innocent! If the devil is the instigator of sin, then the sinner is only a dupe," wrote Vladimir Jankelevitch. In other words, blaming either God or Satan lets humans off the hook for the injuries they cause each other.

Frederic Luskin said that forgiveness is "learning to make peace when something in your life doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to. It's an inner quality not dependent on anyone else, an assertive and necessary life skill rather than a specific response to a particular life situation. People who are hurt have a narcissistic perspective that it's unusual to be hurt, but in fact it's common. When you understand how common it is, you can forgive life."

For others, neither good nor bad is credited to God. They may be atheists; they may be religious people who do not believe that God is responsible for causing personalized, specific effects in the lives of individuals; or they may claim to believe that God does this without being able to bring themselves to acknowledge any specific instance as God's handiwork. Of the last category, Carol M. Swain writes: "...even though we say we believe in God, we live like atheists. We consider God to be either nonexistent or irrelevant — and certainly not in the business of distributing rewards and punishments."

One could be clever and attribute both varieties to God. George F. Will: ”The theologically serious and mordantly witty Peter De Vries wrote in one of his novels about a Connecticut river flood to which a local pastor responded by praying 'that a kind Providence will put a speedy end to the acts of God under which we have been laboring.'”

The theologian Charles Hartshorne asked: “There is only one solution of the problem of evil 'worth writing home about.' It uses the idea of freedom, but generalizes it. Why suppose that only people make decisions?” Very well, but it should be clear that having God make decisions only transfers responsibility onto God. Positing different moral rules for God creates a new problem. H. J. Rose framed it: “...if some things were right for men and others for gods, was there any real moral difference between actions at all?”


Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson Books, 2003. p. 9.

Christopher Hitchens. God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007. pp. 76-77.

Deepak Chopra. How To Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. p 58.

Rick Warren. The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. p. 94.

Vladimir Jankelevitch. Forgiveness. Translated by Andrew Kelley. University of Chicago Press, 2005. Originally Le Pardon, 1967. p 58.

Frederic Luskin, quoted in Rahel Musleah, "The Dance of Forgiveness," Jewish Woman, Fall 2002. p 36.

Carol M. Swain. Be the People: A Call to Reclaim America's Faith and Promise. Thomas Nelson, 2011.

George F. Will. "Leviathan in Lousiana." Newsweek. September 12, 2005. p 88.

Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, p 13.

H. J. Rose. Religion in Greece and Rome. New York: Harper and Row, 1959. p 91. Originally published as Ancient Greek Religion (1946) and Ancient Roman Religion (1948), London: Hutchinson and Co., Limited.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moving from cursing others to assisting them

One stage of grief, in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous schema, is bargaining. One type of bargain a person may try to strike — if only in the imagination, as such bargains usually are anyway — is that someone else could have been taken in place of the one who is grieved. This is not necessarily because they relish the suffering of others. (Some people certainly do. The character of the princess Pari said in Anita Amirrezvani’s novel Equal of the Sun: “People love to dwell on the pain of others; they love to stick their fingers in it and suck on it as if it were honey. But I won’t allow them to feed at my hive.”) They may say this in the height of emotion even if, at a more lucid and sober moment, they would not claim that one life is worth more than another. A character in Sjón's novel From the Mouth of the Whale describes it this way:

Alas, why does God allow the candle of worthless old hags to flicker, year in, year out, for nine times nine years, while abruptly and without apparent mercy blowing out the newly kindled flames of one’s own children? It is an ugly thought that everyone who has ever lost anyone has entertained, demanding in their despair: Why him? Why her? Why not that one or that one, or that other? But I cannot help it. (p. 67)

Later in the novel:

Clenching my fist, I prayed:

“Dear God, take that black-hearted knave Nightwolf Pétursson and give back to me little Hákon, who was always as gentle as a girl; merciful Father, take Ari Magnússon of Ögur and return to me quick-handed Berglind, who inherited her father’s gift for carving; heavenly Creator, take that foul-tongued slanderer, Reverend Gudmundur Einarsson, and give me back the little lad Klemens, with one moss-green eye and one blue; dear Lord, take the whole legion of good-for-nothings who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, format he livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner — when they can speak between ill-gotten mouthfuls; enjoying to a great old age the fruits of the wicked deeds they committed during their days on Earth with the blessing of bishops, and convinced that the despicable acts that they refer to as ‘a good day’s work in the Lord’s vineyard’ will have paid for their place in Heaven; dear God, snatch them away and do with them what you will, but give back to me Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir, a pious woman, a loving wife, and a caring mother who never asked for anything for herself but prayed for mercy and good fortune for friends and strangers alike.

These terrible curses poured in torrents from my mouth. They were so dire that when I came to my senses I hoped that the good Lord in His mercy and deep understanding of human frailty would pretend that His great all-hearing ears had been closed in that dark hour.

Another manifestation of the preference for one life over another is the tendency to treat the deaths of multiple strangers, considered together, as a statistic. Partly this is because we are able to reason that whatever happens to large numbers of people is 'just the way the world works." The theologian Nicolas Berdyaev wrote that "the problem of evil is above all the problem of death....The tragic sense of death is connected with an acute sense of personality, of personal destiny. For the life of the race there is nothing tragic in death. The life of the race always renews itself and continues, it finds compensation for itself." Meanwhile, if a precious known few are in trouble and the bargaining game appears to have been "won," it is considered to be a miracle. As John Allen Paulos wrote in Irreligion: "Why, for example, do so many in the media and elsewhere refer to the rescuing of a few children after an earthquake or a tsunami as a miracle when they attribute the death of perhaps hundreds of equally innocent children in the same disaster to a geophysical fault line? It would seem either both are the result of divine intervention or both are a consequence of the earth's plates shifting."

We are able to be more aware of individuals about whom we can form stories and feel pain (whether empathy for their pain or our own experience of the pain of losing them). As Randall Jarrell wrote: "One writer says that we only notice what hurts us — that if you went through the world without hurting anyone, nobody would even know you had been alive." Having noticed the pain of others, we are responsible for helping them. "Pain observed is journalistic pain. It's diplomatic pain. It's television pain," wrote John Le Carre in The Constant Gardener, "over as soon as you switch off your beastly set. Those who watch suffering and do nothing about it, in her book, were little better than those who inflicted it. They were the bad Samaritans."


The character of the princess Pari, in Anita Amirrezvani’s novel Equal of the Sun. New York: Scribner, 2012.

Sjón. From the Mouth of the Whale. (2008) Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (2011). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. p. 67, 156-157.

Nicolas Berdyaev. The Divine and the Human. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949. p 96.

John Allen Paulos. Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. pp. 85-86.

Randall Jarrell, in the introduction to The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. ed. Randall Jarrell. Garden City, New York: Hanover House, 1961. p xii.

John Le Carre. The Constant Gardener. New York: Pocket Books, 2001. p 159.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Why no one should vote for Donald Trump

His examples of bigotry and misogyny are legion, and he lacks the political experience and knowledge to do the job. Here's why.

The only real choice

Image: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Wiki Commons

"Because of her previous eight years in the White House, her eight years in the Senate and her four years as Secretary of State, she is also the single most prepared person ever to be nominated for president," Charles Kaiser wrote. She has numerous accomplishments in healthcare, civil rights, and diplomacy. She would also, incidentally, be the first woman president of the United States.

What's wrong with the competition

Image: Gage Skidmore via Wiki Commons

Donald Trump has never served in public office nor served in the military. "Taft and Hoover are the only two American presidents who were elected to the presidency despite having never been elected to previous office or served as a high-ranking military officer; however, both served as high-ranking federal government officials," wrote Jennifer Victor.

Trump's experience is solely as a businessman who has focused on real estates and casinos. Only two of the 100 largest U.S. newspapers endorsed Trump, one of which was the Las Vegas Review-Journal owned by fellow casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Although Trump is a billionaire, he has endured multiple bankruptcies.

Some economists are concerned about his attitude toward trade with China.

Two weeks after the election, he is scheduled to stand civil trial for two lawsuits for "misrepresentation, breach of contract, and taking advantage of seniors" and "fraud and racketeering" related to a seminar series he called "Trump University."

Most presidential candidates release their tax returns. Trump never did, and it came to light that he claimed nearly a $1 billion loss in 1995, something that would have enabled him to avoid paying federal income tax for 18 years. When this subject was brought up during the third presidential debate, he blamed his opponent: "If you don't like what I did, you should have changed the laws."

He is also a celebrity who is famous for a reality TV show on which he took pleasure in "firing" prospective business apprentices. He also owns beauty pageants, ostensibly to allow him to be around young, beautiful women. He reportedly spent time backstage and "inspected" the women.

In the 1970s, facing "one of the biggest lawsuits ever brought by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against black people," Trump and his father settled the lawsuit without admitting wrongdoing but agreed to a court order to change their rental practices. In 1989, Trump bought full-page newspaper ads to advocate for the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers who were accused of assault (but who turned out to be innocent). In 1991, the president of the Trump Plaza Hotel claimed that Trump had once told him: "Black guys counting my money! I hate it."

Trump's campaign for president featured a longstanding promise to ban all Muslims from entering the US. This would actually be unconstitutional (so, toward the end of the campaign, he softened it). He "defended" himself by saying: "What I'm doing is no different than FDR" [i.e. putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII]. In July 2016, the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who died serving the U.S. military in Iraq appeared at the Democratic convention. The father spoke movingly while the mother stood by his side. The father also held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and addressed Trump from a distance: "You have sacrificed nothing and no one." Subsequently interviewed by ABC, Trump insulted the mother, "She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say," and said that he had indeed sacrificed because "I work very, very hard" and had created jobs.

He promised to build a wall between the US and Mexico and somehow force Mexico to pay for it. Such a wall would cost about $25 billion, or about twice Mexico's entire military budget. He promised to deport 11 million Latinos currently in the US. This would cost an estimated $300 billion, or about half the United States' entire military budget.

Given multiple chances during his campaign to speak on what he would do for African-Americans, he repeatedly made offensively stereotypical comments about "inner cities" and said that black people are "living in hell." His solution? Bring back "stop-and-frisk," a law by which a police officer can stop anyone they like and search them for weapons, which was ruled ineffective and, oh, unconstitutional.

The American Nazi Party’s chairman identified "real opportunity" in a Trump presidency, while the KKK newspaper The Crusader published support for Trump. In the final days of his campaign, he published an attack ad naming Jewish financial professionals George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in a tradition of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In 2004, radio host Howard Stern asked Donald Trump on-air if it was acceptable to call his 23-year-old daughter "a piece of ass," and Trump said yes. In 2006, Trump said on the TV show "The View," while seated next to his daughter: “I don’t think Ivanka would[pose for nude photographs] inside the magazine Although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said that if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps, I would be dating her. Is that terrible?”

In 2005, Trump was standing outside speaking to an Access Hollywood journalist without realizing the microphone was on. He was recorded saying: "I did try and fuck her...She was married. I moved on her very heavily...I moved on her like a bitch...I just start kissing them...When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything."

In August 2015, after a female debate moderator from Fox News asked tough questions of the Republican candidates, Trump made an apparent comment about menstruation when he told CNN Tonight that "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever."

In 2006, he called a female comedian a "big, fat pig." In September 2016, he renewed an old feud with a former Miss Universe, calling her fat and questioning her naturalized U.S. citizenship. He had previously called the Latina woman "Miss Piggy" and "Miss Housekeeping." (Trump himself is on the verge of obesity, according to the height and weight he revealed on the Dr. Oz show in September 2016.)

In a March 2016 interview with Chris Matthews, Trump said that he advocated outlawing abortion and punishing women who have abortions. (Credible anti-abortion proposals typically suggest punishment for doctors, not for girls and women.)

While campaigning in November 2015, he waved his arms in a manner that appeared to mock a reporter who was born with a condition affecting his joints. When his opponent, campaigning with then-undiagnosed pneumonia, stumbled while walking to her car, he mocked her as lacking "stamina": "She’s supposed to fight all of these different things, and she can’t make it fifteen feet to her car, give me a break."

In the days before the election, he said he would cut all funding for renewable energy research and development. This would present a problem with compliance with international treaties like the Paris Agreement which the US had signed just six months previously along with 174 other nations, and it would affect existing American jobs insofar as $1.5 billion is already spent each year in this area.

Trump has said he would sign the "First Amendment Defense Act" which would allow discrimination against unmarried people who have sex. He himself had a high-profile extramarital affair in the late 1980s; in 1990, he told an interviewer that he did not believe adultery was a sin; and, as of the month before the election, on his third marriage, 12 women had accused him of sexual assault. The "First Amendment Defense Act" of course allows discrimination against couples in a same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, including an increasing number of Republican politicians, (which is good since the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage is legal throughout all 50 states), yet Trump insists he believes the question should be returned to each state to decide for itself and he picked a vice presidential candidate who has opposed gay rights at every turn.

In November 2015, confident in his own foreign policy knowledge, Trump said: "I know more about ISIS than the generals do." In September 2016, he would fire the generals. (This is not officially within the president's powers, nor within his interests, if he wants honest facts and candid advice from career military professionals rather than yes-men.)

A Politifact analysis found that 91 percent of Trump's statements are false. Psychologists have speculated that he has significant personality disorders: narcissistic, antisocial, sociopathic. His charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, spent $20,000 on a giant portrait of him.

He took the time to complain about rapper Jay-Z's use of bad language at a concert at a rally for his opponent just days before the Nov. 2016 election. Trump himself is such a loose cannon that his campaign staff banned him from his own Twitter account immediately leading up to the election.

Trump has threatened, if elected, to jail his opponent, a behavior normally associated with dictators. His supporters commonly chant "Lock her up!" at rallies.

He has also described the election — even before it happened — as "rigged," and said in the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19, 2016 that he might not accept the results if he did not win. A Republican commented: “Refusing to accept the outcome of a legitimate American election and refusing to commit to the peaceful transition of power is disqualifying. Stunning.”

Jonathan Freedland wrote for The Guardian:

"An American leader who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax, who believes terror suspects should be tortured and their family members killed, who believes that Saudi Arabia should have nuclear weapons, who is fascinated by nukes’ power of 'devastation' and who has asked repeatedly why the US doesn’t use them; a man who says, 'I love war'; a man who drools in admiration for Vladimir Putin and whose disregard for NATO, and refusal to promise to defend a member state if attacked, would all but invite Moscow to invade one of the Baltic states — such a man would plunge all of us into a dark future."

Fareed Zakaria said on his final weekly television show before the election:

"I am not a highly partisan person. I have views that are left of center, but others that are conservative...I think well of many Republican politicians, including the last two GOP presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both of whom are honorable men and would have been good presidents...Donald Trump is not a normal candidate. He is a cancer on American democracy."

Of the Republicans who support Trump, Paul Waldman wrote for the Washington Post:

..."there’s only one party that is so vigorously undermining core democratic institutions in this way. You may not like what Democrats stand for, but they aren’t engaging in widespread official vote suppression, chanting that should their candidate win her opponent should be tossed in jail, promising to prevent any Republican president from filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, suggesting that they’ll try to impeach their opponent as soon as he takes office, cheering when a hostile foreign power hacks into American electronic systems, and trying to use the FBI to win the election."

But not all do. The Republicans may have reached the point of schism over this candidacy. Many prominent Republicans do not support Trump although he is their party's nominee. According to a list compiled by The Atlantic, non-supporters include former presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and many high-ranking career politicians, pundits, and other influentials. On the list: Barbara Bush, Mitt Romney, Tom DeLay, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, Larry Pressler, Norm Coleman, Michael Bloomberg, Sally Bradshaw, Marc Racicot, Vin Weber, Gordon Humphrey, Chris Shays, Mike Murphy, John Warner, William Milliken, Mickey Edwards, John Huntsman, Christine Todd Whitman, Michael Steele, Mel Martinez, Ken Mehlman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Fred Upton, Richard Hanna, Charlie Dent, Adam Kinzinger, Mike Coffman, Bob Dold, Scott Rigell, Dave Reichert, Reid Ribble, Mac Thornberry, Barbara Comstock, Martha Roby, Joe Heck, Cresent Hardy, Mia Love, Will Hurd, Steve Knight, John Katko, Kay Granger, Rodney Davis, Ann Wagner, Tom Rooney, Erik Paulsen, Frank LoBiondo, Jamie Herrera Beutler, Susan Collins, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake, Dean Heller, Cory Gardner, John Thune, Dan Sullivan, John Kasich, Brian Sandoval, Charlie Baker, Rick Snyder, Larry Hogan, Susana Martinez, Gary Herbert, Bill Haslam, Robert Bentley, Dennis Daugaard, Richard Armitage, Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, Hank Paulson, Michael Chertoff, Michael Hayden, John Negroponte, Tom Ridge, William Ruckelshaus, William Reilly, Carlos Gutierrez, George P. Shultz, Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Fried, Louis Wade Sullivan, Robert Zoellick, Robert Gates, Donald Gregg, Ed Meese, Michael Chertoff, Colin Powell, Bill Kristol, Ross Douthat, Ross Douthat, Leon Wolf, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Glenn Beck, Max Boot, Michael Reagan, Robert Kagan, Bret Stephens, Greg Mankiw, Lanhee Chen, John Podhoretz, Michael Medved, John Yoo, Ari Fleischer, Paul Singer, Charles and David Koch, Meg Whitman, Seth Klarman, Mike Fernandez, Russell Moore, Robert P. George, Wayne Grudem.

If you are a registered voter in the US, tomorrow, you, too, can have your say.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What is Jewish mysticism?

What do mystics believe?

If there is any underlying belief to mysticism, it is the assumption that God is connected to humans and present near us. Scholem said that mysticism arises when religion is in a "romantic period," recognizing an "abyss" and launching a "quest for the secret that will close it in, the hidden path that will span it. It strives to piece together the fragments broken by the religious cataclysm, to bring back the old unity which religion has destroyed, but on a new plane, where the world of mythology and that of revelation meet in the soul of man." Similarly, Dedopulos described mysticism as the "most advanced stage of religion" that reconciles the animist/immanent view of the world (in which the world itself is alive or divine) with the idea of a distant creator by providing techniques for direct connection with God: "God's created are able to uncover the paths by which they can make their way back to God. They can therefore form very personal, open relationships with him; the Lord of All becomes the Loving Friend." To explain rationally how the finite can connect with the infinite, Scholem said, the mystic needs to use the language of "paradox."

To that end: "Spiritual awareness is born of encounters with the mystery. It begins with an almost trivial passing astonishment and the irreducable [sic] paradox that underlies everything. There are two sides that are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive. But there they are, at the same time. Their simultaneous existence defines any known system of logic." (Kushner, pp. 34-35)

"...mysticism is a topic soliciting both academic and personal attention. We can learn a great deal from scholars, but textual studies have their limits. Admittedly, all studies are personal, calling for acts of imagination from their readers, humanistic studies most of all. With mysticism, however, the call includes a summons to go beyond imagination, to picture stopping picturing, starting to locate dark, voided places in the self like the places where the mystics say they have experienced ultimate reality directly. Because ultimate reality is not picturable, as proximate realities are, those places lie below or above or to the side of the normal imagination. Certainly, the mystic has had to return to the normal imagination to speak about mystical experience, yet such speech has had to deny itself, or try to defeat itself, to communicate the core truth. * * * With ultimate reality and the mysticism that experiences it directly, the very substance, the bare minimum necessary for speaking significantly at all, cannot be captured adequately in human terms. Until we can locate in ourselves the ineffable quality that stands at the mystical core, we have not found what the mystics themselves suggest is the Archimedean lever.

* * *

"We can call it only the mystery because as soon as we sense it we realize that it defeats our understanding. We are primed to deal with finite entities, things of space and time. Infinite or purely spiritual entities we have to deal with negatively, though denials of space and time, boundaries and limits. The light of our minds seems to go out, and we have to grope through unknowing, at the depths of our spirits, like miners deep in the shafts.

We never get to the end of the shaft, through the doorway, unless the darker-than-mystery takes us by the hand and drags us through. Classical Christian mystics have described such a transition as ‘infused contemplation’ and considered it to be mysticism proper, the prime analogue. It is passive, rather than active, a free work of divine grace, rather than anything that human effort can achieve. Ultimate reality takes us to itself, and we cannot resist. On our own (though guided by the mystery constantly), we may get to the doorway, if fortune is favorable. To pass to the far side and get to the wisdom beyond, to dwell in the interior castle onto which the doorway opens, is beyond us. The end of the journey, the consummation of the love, depends on the slow yet strong hands of an Other."
(Carmody & Carmody, pp. 21, 115)

Dennis referred to a

"powerful mystical sense of kinship between God and humanity (Ohr Yitzhak 182a-b; Zohar I:94a). Within the soul of every individual is a hidden part of God that is waiting to be revealed. And even mystics who refuse to so boldly describe such a fusion of God and man nevertheless find the whole of Creation suffused in divinity, breaking down distinctions between God and the universe. Thus, the Kabbalist Moses Cordovero writes, 'The essence of divinity is found in every single thing, nothing but It exists...It exists in each existent.'"

‘Theosophic’ Kabbalah, as academics call it, "produced a complete and elaborate theological system focused on the ten sefirot, attributes of God that describe all of his characteristics and activities. While God’s essence is entirely unknowable, the sefirot allow us to comprehend what we can know about God within the bounds of our limited human understanding. (Eisen, p. 130)

Dennis said: "All Jewish mystical/esoteric traditions adopt the language of, and expand upon, the philosophic ideas of their time: the Merkavah mystics are influenced by both Platonic ideas and Pythagorean mathematics, the classical Kabbalah was influenced by Neo-Platonism, and Abraham Abulafia was inspired by Maimonidean Scholasticism." Some perceive a scriptural "injunction against taking a mentally created 'image' of God for an authentic experience of God. The Kabbalistic universe must therefore be understood as a map of the mystic's journey to God, one whose symbols, though grounded in the Torah, have fluctuated with the changing collective Jewish consciousness." (Besserman, p. 10) And Scholem said that, while the mystic will likely need to "transgress" the boundaries of traditional religion as "the substance of the canonical texts, like that of all other religious values, is melted down and given another form as it passes through the fiery stream of the mystical consciousness," the Torah is not rejected but is "regarded as the living incarnation of the divine wisdom which eternally sends out new rays of light." So, "virtually always postbiblical Jewish mystics were immersed in, even pillars of, the communities that the rabbis were developing authoritatively. Many of them were authoritative rabbis, or masters, in their own right. Mysticism enjoyed and suffered from a beguiling, fearful existence along the border of Talmudic Judaism. It could seem both to support and to challenge the central concern of the rabbis: to interpret Torah so as to sanctify all of practical life." (Carmody & Carmody, p. 139)

Of historical note: “Kabbalah does not openly endorse violence against non-Jews, but it expresses the most negative views of non-Jews in Judaism by associating them with the realm of pure evil, and it envisions the messianic era as a period in which the non-Jewish world will be destroyed.” (Eisen, p. 207)

What is a mystical feeling? What do mystics do to get it?

Mostly, mysticism is understood to focus on religious experience. Mysticism "is most often understood as an attempt to have an unusually direct and intimate relationship with the divine.” (Eisen, p. 129) It is "the type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense and living stage," according to Rufus Jones in Studies in Mystical Religion.

Mystics "want to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstones of reason," in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Eisen explains: "‘ecstatic’ or ‘prophetic’ Kabbalah...emphasizes meditation as a means to achieving a close relationship with the divine." Mystics go about "the actual quest for mystical experience: a direct, intuitive, unmediated encounter with a close but concealed Deity...the ecstatic experience of God, not merely knowledge about God." Such Jewish mystics "tend to be ascetics" and "create hanganot, personal daily devotional practices (Hanganot ha-Tzadikim)" in addition to fulfilling traditional religious obligations and raising a family. (Dennis p. 141) Thus, "Jewish mystics are a paradoxical combination of spirituality and earthiness." (Epstein, p. xiv) "This desire for union with the divine, the absolute, the powers beyond, or however else this superhuman goal of the mystical aspiration may be called, is generally believed to rest on a special vocation, a call from above, and involves an often very strenuous preparation, a turning away from the visible world and its enjoyments and, in most cases, severe physical austerities." (Graef, p. 9)

“The love of language [poet Robert] Lax and his friends shared gave them impressive verbal acuity, but their hyperawareness of meanings and pseudo-meanings, connotations and denotations, could have a deadening effect on individual words and thoughts. Every term or concept was suspect, subject to the charge of being phony — even words such as contemplation and mysticism Lax and Merton would later embrace. (Their distrust of mysticism came out in a game they called Subway Mysticism. Standing in the middle of a subway car, they’d pretend the train’s acceleration was taking them into a mystic trance.)”

Then what happens?

The next dimension "is the practical, theurgic, or pragmatic Kabbalah (Kabbalah Maasit or Kabbalah Shimmush); the application of mystical power to effect change in Asiyah, the material world of action. This is both the most attractive and the most dangerous aspect of the mystical enterprise. For that reason, many Kabbalists opt not to pursue this branch of Kabbalah at all (Sha'arei Kedushah). Practical Kabbalah consists of rituals for gaining and exercising power. It involves activating theurgic potential by the way one performs the commandments, the summoning and controlling of angelic and demonic forces, and otherwise tapping into the supernatural energies present in Creation." (Dennis, p. 142)

“...Jewish mystical experience has been markedly kataphatic (imaginative, positive about symbols, confident that the effort to represent God is valuable)...

The God whom Jewish mystics have sought is the God of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. This God is personal, engaged with the original tribes and their descendants, as with a people uniquely his own. The people think of themselves as formed through a unique covenant, and they think that no other people has received so much from the one God, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Carmody & Carmody, p. 181)

One's private revelation of God is considered to be most important in part because it has the keys to interpreting the public revelation of God at Sinai. (Scholem, p. 9)

Historical origins

  • Philo of Alexandria described the doctrine of the Therapeutae
  • The Merkavah school of Talmudic rabbis, including Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd-century C.E. The Merkavah was the prophet Ezekiel's vision of God's chariot. From this sprang the Sepher Yetzirah, or the Book of Creation, written in the 3rd century CE, which Dedopulos calls "the earliest piece of the Kabbalah proper." It includes the ten sefiroth (spheres) and the "paths of knowledge that connect them." (Dedopulos, p. 13)
  • Hilda Graef said that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’s mystical teachings were not much influenced by Hindu or Buddhist mysticism but they were influenced by Neoplatonism, specifically by Plotinus who lived in the 3rd century C.E. Plotinus taught that part of the soul lives in normal space/time and the other part was transcendent and associated with the contemplative and the good. (Graef, pp. 16-17)
  • "...Jewish mystics have seldom taken yogic, shamanistic, or even medicinal turns.” (Carmody & Carmody, p. 182)

It picked up again in the medieval period.

  • 11th century, Spain: The philosopher Ibn Gabirol called "these secret oral teachings 'Kabbalah,' or tradition. All Jewish mystical practice since then falls under the heading of 'Kabbalah.'" (Epstein, p. xvi)
  • 12th century Europe: The Hasidei Ashkenaz of Germany moved away from Aristotelian-influenced Jewish philosophy and back to the old Merkavah teachings. "Where great mainstream Jewish philosophers such as Moses Maimonides were thinking about ways to deal with life and living, the Hasidim were teaching that God could be known, and that it was possible to make life into what you wanted, to be truly happy and contented." They produced Sepher Hasidim, Book of the Pious, and they studied Gematria, looking for numerical codes in the Torah. Next was Sepher ha-Bahir, which showed up in France, "the second great Kabbalistic treatise," and The Mystical Torah: Kabbalistic Creation, in Spain. In the 13th century came the vast work Sepher ha-Zohar, Book of Splendour, promoted by and likely written by Moses de León. "It is still considered synonymous with the study of the Kabbalah. It collected all sorts of information from the oral tradition, elucidated confusing or conflicting points in the Bahir and the Sepher Yetzirah, and finally gave the Kabbalah the written record it needed to gain acceptance across Europe." (Dedopulos, p. 14-16)
  • 13th century Spain: Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia was "a nomadic mystic who wandered across Europe and even to the Holy Land in search of truths and answers. Abulafia's teachings had already made him famous, and his journeys simply added further to his personal legend. He even visited Pope Nicholas III in Rome to demand an apology for the suffering that the Christians had inflicted on the Jews. The pope of course threw Abulafia straight into prison, but died before he could implement the death penalty that he had decreed. Eventually, Abulafia settled on a small, isolated island near Malta to continue working away from the world. His most notable contribution was an alternative decoding system to gematria...called tziruf, which involved manipulating combinations of letters. He also left a system of meditation by which mankind could achieve D'vikut ('cleaving' to God) which still attracts attention today." (Dedopulos, p. 16) "Of all Jewish mystics, Abraham Abulafia most nearly resembles the antic Zen master." (Epstein, p. 77) Abulafia "and his disciples devised elaborate techniques of meditation that involved special postures, controlled breathing, and, most important, mental visualizations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in various combinations. Some members of this school believed that the elevated spiritual state achieved by these techniques could even result in the temporary merging of one’s soul with God, an experience referred to by academics as ‘mystical union’ and often regarded as the quintessence of mysticism." (Eisen, p. 129)


Besserman, Perle. The Shambhala Guide to Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, Boston and London: Shambhala, 1997.

Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Dedopulos, Tim. Kabbalah: An illustrated introduction to the esoteric heart of Jewish mysticism. New York: Gramercy Books, 2005.

Dennis, Geoffrey W. Entry on "Kabbalah." The encyclopedia of Jewish myth, magic and mysticism.

Eisen, Robert. The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Epstein, Perle. Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.

Graef, Hilda. Story of Mysticism: Christian mysticism from its beginnings to the twentieth century. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965.

Kushner, Lawrence. Honey from the Rock (1977), Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 2000.

Michael N. McGregor. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. Fordham University Press, 2015.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

Note: Scholem recommends the work of Evelyn Underhill.