HMS 5765-17: Jewish Mystical Literature

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

January 24, 2005 – Number 5765-17

Jewish Mystical Literature

In the effort to understand G-d and the way G-d operates in this world, Jews have long tried to understand the mystical side of our religion. In some faith circles, mysticism is used to take control of the world from the deity or to force god to do what human beings want. This is not true mysticism, it is only magic. Jewish Mysticism tries to understand the mysteries of G-d so that we will understand the meaning of creation and our place within it.
Some of the earliest mystical literature has to do with two major themes from the Bible. The first is the story of creation. How was the world created? Why was the world created? Why was the world created in the form in which we see it today? What role does every part of creation have to do with every other part? The other theme is based on the vision of Ezekiel. The chariot of G-d that Ezekiel sees in his vision is filled with mystery. As we understand G-d’s chariot, so do we understand the meaning of our place in the cosmos. Hechalot Literature uses repetition and poetry to move through the chambers of Heaven. It is some of the earliest mystical literature and parts of it can still be found in the Shacharit service for the High Holy Days. Long mystical poems were written around the Kedusha of Shacharit as well as first blessing before the Shema. The prayer El Adon, we recite on Shabbat Morning is a small part of this kind of poetry.
The Rabbis of the Talmud also had their own kind of mysticism. They were aware of pagan mysticism and opposed the magic that was inherit in it. Still they looked to rise above the world and draw closer to G-d. There is a kind of “normal” mysticism that the Rabbis endorse, through the saying of berachot, to find the holiness in every part of life. One did not need to remove oneself from society to be a mystic, one need only to pay attention to the world around us.
Maimonides also had his own kind of mysticism (in spite of the fact he was mostly a rationalist). In Rambam’s understanding of the universe, the heavens were a kind of model for how the infinite G-d brings elements of the divine into this finite world. As residents of this world, we can only know a small amount of what G-d is all about, but through our intellect, we can come to know more than just a cursory amount.
In the fourteenth century, Moses DeLeon crafted the Zohar, the first and most important book in Kabbalistic literature. Based on the life of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, this book is a commentary on the Torah and is filled with mystical ways of understanding that important text. It creates a “tree” of ten “sefirot” (attributes or understandings) that prepare this world to understand the infinite nature of G-d. They begin with “Ain Sof” or the infinity of G-d and end with “Malchut” the manifestation of G-d as ruler of the universe.
In the eighteenth century, Isaac Luria started a form of mysticism that is based on the actions of humanity. The world is broken and unrepaired. Our role in this world is to find all the broken pieces of this world and to redeem them and thus repair the broken world. This process is called Tikkun Olam, the “fixing” of this world. And each mitzvah we perform, each time we recite a blessing, each time we perform a ritual, we are helping to redeem another broken shard and to make our world better.
There is always a danger in mysticism that we will give ourselves over to the mystical experience and forget all other responsibilities. For this reason Judaism usually reserves mystical contemplation until three criteria are met. That the seeker is over 40 years old and thus is mature and not easily distracted by the difficult passages that may arise. The second criteria is that all family obligations have been fulfilled. We must first be married and have raised children if we hope to understand G-d. Third, we must have a “Full Belly” of Torah, that is we must be fully grounded in Jewish Law and Jewish texts if we hope to understand the mystical nature of Judaism. There is a tale of four who went seeking in the garden of mysticism, of the three young Rabbis, one went insane, one died and one left Judaism. Only the fourth Rabbi, who was significantly older, over 40 and a great scholar. It is important that we are prepared mentally, physically and spiritually before we begin our mystical studies.

Next week: Judaism and Sex I: Legal Responsibilities

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