Jewish Mystical Ideas and Concerns

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

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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.

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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.