Jewish Mystical Ideas and Concerns

Can we distinguish a mystical idea from a philosophical one--and mystical practice from magic?

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The following article explores two aspects of Jewish mysticism. In the first half, the author discusses the relationship between philosophical ideas and mystical ideas. In the second half, he delineates the two fundamental concerns found in Jewish mystical literature: a claim to esoteric knowledge and the importance of certain intense religious experiences. Reprinted with permission from "Jewish Mysticism: A Philosophical Overview," in History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (1996).

Of the many contributions that Gershom Scholem's prolific research has made to the field of Judaica, one of the most significant is the broadening of the parameters of the intellectual history of the Jews from late antiquity to the modern period.

This expansion of intellectual horizons is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the study of medieval Jewish culture, the richest period of mystical creativity in Jewish history. Together with the more traditionally studied forms of philosophical expression, reflecting in particular the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic legacies transmitted to the Jews through the Arabic translations of Greek and Syriac works, Scholem introduced a canon of texts that approached many of the same problems in metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, and cosmology as did the works of classical philosophy.

Mysticism and Philosophy: Discrete Disciplines

Despite the fact that Scholem was keenly aware of the textual, philological, and historical influence of philosophical authors on Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages, he dichotomized the intellectual currents of mysticism and philosophy in too simplistic a fashion.

In part this has to be seen as Scholem's reaction to his intellectual predecessors, the nineteenth‑century German scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums ["the science of Judaism"], who viewed the medieval philosophical sources as the apex of cultural creativity, whereas the mystical texts were derisively considered to be an affront to the ethical monotheism of Judaism. Responding to such an attitude, Scholem argued repeatedly that the mystical sources, and not the philosophical, tapped the deepest recesses of religious consciousness by reviving what he considered to be the long-suppressed mythical dimension of Judaism.

To cite one representative example of this: "the old God whom Kabbalistic gnosis opposed to the God of the philosophers proves, when experienced in all his living richness, to be an even older and archaic one." The bifurcation of mysticism and philosophy led Scholem to such distinctions as symbol versus allegory that break down under the weight of textual detail. Ironically, in his attempt to legitimate the mystical vitality of Judaism, Scholem reiterates the overly simplistic distinction between rationalistic philosophy and pietistic mysticism in the Jewish Middle Ages.

Mysticism and Philosophy: Overlapping Disciplines

As an alternative to Scholem a number of scholars, including, most significantly, Georges Vajda and Alexander Altmann, presented a far more complex picture of the relationship of philosophy and mysticism by demonstrating in a number of motif studies that the philosophers and mystics utilized similar images and were influenced by the same sources.

More recent scholarship has gone beyond the comparativist framework of Vadja and Altmann by arguing that in the lived situation of the medieval philosophers the influence of mystical speculation is clearly discernible. That is, it is not simply that medieval philosophers and mystics used the same language, but that the religious context of the philosophers was one that was saturated with mystical traditions.

Even Scholem's schematization of the two major currents that influenced the history of kabbalah as Gnosticism and Neoplatonism must be qualified inasmuch as these two strands were intertwined in the very channels that may have transmitted gnostic myth and philosophic speculation to the kabbalists in medieval Europe. In the telling phrase of a kabbalist active in the last decades of the thirteenth century, Moses ben Simeon of Burgos, the mystic stands on the head of the philosopher.

The import of this statement is not only that the mystical tradition exceeds the bounds of philosophical discourse, but that the former is unimagin­able without the latter. There is a great deal of truth in this comment, as it is impossible to disentangle the threads of philosophy and mysticism when examining the texture of medieval Jewish mysticism in any of its major expressions. This entanglement is both historical and ideational.

Esotericism and Ecstasy: Two Distinct Concerns

It is possible to isolate two distinct concerns running through all the major texts that scholars include in the corpus of Jewish mysticism.

On the one hand, there is the claim to an esoteric knowledge (whose content will naturally vary from one period to another) that is not readily available to the masses through the more common avenues of religious worship, ritual, or study. This knowledge moreover, is not attained through ordinary rational or sentient means, but is transmitted orally from master to disciple or is the result of some divine or angelic revelation. To be sure, those enlightened in either of these ways can then find the truths and secret meanings hidden within the traditional textual canons of Judaism.

The former assumption regarding oral transmission provided the key term used to designate different forms of Jewish esotericism in the Middle Ages, namely kabbalah, which means "tradition" or "that which is received." Frequently, the esoteric knowledge conveys truths about the inner workings of the divine world and is therefore theosophical in its orientation.

The second major element identifiable in Jewish mystical literature is the emphasis placed on the intense religious experience. The particular form of this experience varies, but it usually includes one or more of the following: heavenly ascent, vision of the divine form, angelification, or mystical union. What also distinguishes the ecstatic experience is the claim that special techniques of a meditative sort were required to induce the desired frame of mind.

It is on account of these techniques--especially those that involve recitation and/or combination of the letters of divine names--that an important strand of Jewish mysticism bears a strong resemblance to magical practices. Indeed, in some cases it is extremely hard to draw the line between mysticism and magic within Jewish sources. Those texts that are of an almost purely magical sort are referred to in the traditional literature itself as practical kabbalah (qabbalah ma'asit), to be distinguished from the more theosophical or speculative kabbalah (qabbalah 'iyyunit).

It must be noted, however, that important theosophical elements are often found in these more practical texts, the study of which has been grossly neglected by scholars. Even a cursory glance at magical charms, amulets, incantations, exorcisms, and formulae reveals to what extent this genre of literature is indebted to various forms of doctrinal information regarding, for example, the nature and names of angels and demons, attributes of God, the nature of the soul, the fate of the heavenly bodies, and so on, which are essential elements in Jewish mystical texts as well.

One may legitimately distinguish mysticism from magic on the basis of the stated goals of a given source, but one must at the same time recognize the conceptual underpinning shared by both enterprises.

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Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

Dr. Elliot R. Wolfsonn is Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

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