Mystical ideas were a part of Jewish belief from its earliest times. In the Middle Ages the doctrines of Jewish mysticism came to full flower. Some historians think that the bleak historical circumstances of the riots, expulsions, and persecutions of the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries forced many Jewish thinkers to retreat into the complicated and esoteric realms of mystical contemplation.
To understand this important side of medieval Jewish thought, we need first to set out a general definition of mysticism. Rufus Jones, an interpreter of mysticism, defines it as follows: "Mysticism expresses 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."
This definition focuses on the experience of God and the extreme feeling of the participant. According to this view, the mystical "moment" is far from a routine and quiet contemplation. It is an alive and vibrant dimension of religious life.
Gershom Scholem, a leading authority on the subject of Jewish mysticism, emphasized another side to the world of religious mysticism--the role of tradition in mysticism. Scholem demonstrated how firmly mysticism was grounded in a specific and complex belief system. He divided the religious experience of humankind into two stages.
In the first stage, God surrounds man in nature. No gap is felt between man and God; therefore there is no room for mystical experience and, indeed, no need for it.
In the second stage, humanity is separated from God. Only God's voice through revelation can link persons to the Divine.
The myths of religion give concrete form to expressions of the main ideas of religion: creation, revelation, and redemption. Mysticism within a religion, then, can make use of these ideas developed in history and give them, according to Scholem, new and different meanings reflecting the characteristic feature of mystical experience, the direct contact between the individual and God.
Mysticism in the second stage becomes inexorably linked with the traditions of a religious system. Jewish mysticism at this stage of development is called kabbalah (tradition). It combines elements of teachings available to all who wish to learn them and a host of secret doctrines accessible to only a few elite initiates.
Mysticism has developed in every generation of Jewish history, from Rabbi Aqiba in the first century to the present. Some concerns are common to all eras of Jewish mysticism. Two such issues are the desire to know the attributes of God and the search for the symbolic meanings of the Torah. Mystics have suggested alternative readings to the stories of the Torah. A mystic who reads the story of the exodus from Egypt might interpret it to be a narrative of a different sort of journey: the release from one's inner Egypt, the bondage of the human situation. In addition, Jewish mysticism has often dealt with eschatological ideas (those concerned with the final events of mankind or of the world) and cosmogonic notions (those concerned with the creation or origin of the world).
In the Middle Ages Jewish mysticism burst forth in defiance of the pressures of the times. True, the Jews remained concerned with talmudic precepts and ritual, but they turned also to mystical and messianic teachings in search of a way to understand the implications of their particular historical conditions.
The Jews of the Rhineland, for example, sent a query to one of the leading rabbis of the day regarding two seemingly unrelated issues. First, they inquired about the proper way to slaughter an animal so that the meat would be kosher (fit to eat according to dietary laws). Second, they wanted to know when the Messiah would come to redeem the Jewish people.
Mysticism flourished in both cultural spheres of Judaism: in the Ashkenazic (central European) and the Sephardic (Spanish and North African) worlds. In early times the main focus of mystical tradition was on the doctrines concerning the creation of the world by God.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 had a great impact on the Jewish community. After this event the emphasis of Jewish mysticism shifted to issues relating to the redemption of the people, not the creation of the universe.
The kabbalah of Isaac Luria (also called the Ari) had a great effect on Jews of this time. Luria taught that Jews themselves could bring about the redemption of the nation and the world. Further, through the observance of the mizvot (commandments), Jews could alter the course of history. His doctrines attributed a universal significance to rabbinic Judaism. To express these doctrines Lurianic kabbalah developed a symbolic language. It taught that to bring redemption to the world, Jews had to rescue the sparks of light by fulfilling God's will to change the flow of primal light.
The development of kabbalah took a significant turn at the juncture of the sixteenth century when mystical thought became linked with messianic yearnings. This connection changed the character of Jewish mysticism by transforming the kabbalah from a strictly doctrinal system to a more salvific worldview.
In the seventeenth century, mysticism was carried forward to its ultimate logical conclusion by Shabbetai Zevi, the false messiah. In later historical periods, Zionism and Reform Judaism developed further the doctrines of utopian messianism.
Let us now examine more specifically some doctrines of the kabbalah. The Zohar was the original classic work of Jewish mysticism. It was written in the thirteenth century by Moses deLeon (though he did not sign his name to the work). He wrote the Zohar in the style of earlier works of rabbinic Judaism, such as the Midrash and the Talmud. It is a long and complex work, difficult to decipher in many instances.
The Zohar teaches that there are ten sefirot (spheres or emanations of divine powers) of God: supreme crown, wisdom, intelligence, mercy, power or judgment, compassion, lasting endurance, majesty, foundation, and kingship. Often these are drawn as a tree or as a man.
The Zohar calls God the En Sof (the Infinite). According to the kabbalists there are ten fundamental attributes of God, that is, ten stages through which God, the Divine Life, pulsates back and forth. Every stage has its own symbolic name. The sum total of these teachings comprises a highly complex system in which almost every biblical word corresponds to one of the sefirot. In this view of things some say that the Torah is one long name of God. It cannot be understood according to ordinary methods; it can only be interpreted.
The mystical treatise of the Zohar is the first Jewish book that identifies the four methods of interpreting the Scripture: the literal, homiletic, allegorical, and mystical. Only the last method really matters to the author of the Zohar.
A further idea important to the mystical world of the Zohar is the notion of creation from the "mystical nothing." This concept could be compared with the idea of the mathematical point that, by moving, generates two- and three-dimensional objects. Wisdom is said to be that point. With this notion the Zohar presents a mystical interpretation of a verse from the beginning of Genesis. "In the beginning God created" means that with wisdom the mystical nothing unfolds and reveals the nature of Elohim (God).
There are many sexual aspects of kabbalistic teaching. Often the kabbalah speaks of the mystical union between man and God in explicit terms. And frequently reference is made to the love story in the biblical Book of the Song of Songs.
The kabbalah retells in its own idiom the primary stories of Judaism. The creation of the world takes on a new aura through mystical revision. Some basic themes of Jewish thought revised in mystical form could be summarized as follows.
Originally God was united with his Shekhinah (Divine Presence). There was a mystical flow uniting all sefirot. Then man sinned. As a result, a disruption developed in the harmony of the system. Now, through religious acts (Torah, commandments, and prayer) man can restore and repair the world to its pristine state. This process is sometimes called the mystical tikkun (repair of the world).
In this view of life, all actions on earth have an effect in heaven. For Jews of the Middle Ages, such a belief was a crucial doctrine. It said to the individual that all was not lost. Indeed, every little thing had some cosmic meaning, but the larger picture of historical circumstance meant essentially nothing.
Luria, mentioned earlier, propounded a new doctrine called tsimtsum (retreat). According to his belief, God retreated out of the world. In mystical idiom he told of the exile of the En Sof into seclusion to make room for the world. Luria's system of thought emphasized the exile and restoration of God's Shekhinah.
He focused on redemption in times of crisis and physical exile--the tikkun of humanity's existence. Man could accomplish this through mystical prayer and kawwanah (extreme concentration), a special frame of mind in the performance of the commandments and in the recitation of prayers. Luria predicted that the Messiah would come in 1575. But even after that time, his system of thought retained its hold on his many followers.
(Excerpted from Tzvee Zahavy, Introduction to Judaism, 1989)