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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.


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