Judaism is based on the public Revelation at Sinai, when the Torah was given to Israel. The historical event of Sinai attests to the divine source and nature of the Torah, and the Torah in turn serves as the exclusive criterion for any subsequent claims and teachings.
Authentic Jewish mysticism is an integral part of Torah…
Authentic Jewish mysticism is an integral part of Torah, and Torah determines what is authentic Jewish mysticism.
The general term for Jewish mysticism is "Kabbalah". "Kabbalah" means "tradition". Kabbalah is not a compound of personal insights. It is not a collection of reports of what various sages and saints had to say on the meaning of life and ultimate values - based on their mystical experiences or visions. It is not a system born in a vacuum.
Kabbalah and its teachings - no less than Jewish Law - are an integral part of the Torah. They are traced back to the historical roots of Sinai, part and parcel of "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it…."
To be sure, in various works of Kabbalah one can find reports of mystical experiences, visions, the supernatural - all those things and more which we normally link to mysticism. They are there, but they are not the essence or even a major part of Kabbalah. At best they are effects, possibilities of potential effects that may accompany a mystic's life. The authentic mystic, however, will not seek to manipulate and will shun interference with the natural order instituted by the Creator.
The authentic mystic seeks knowledge, understanding. He wants to "Know the G‑d of your father", to fulfill the precept of "You shall know this day and consider in your heart that G‑d He is G‑d in Heaven above and upon the earth below - there is nothing else." He seeks to realize and understand this axiom not only as an intellectual affirmation of truth but as a living reality within the limits of his capacity - profoundly sensing the literal omnipresence of G‑d, with a penetrating understanding and knowledge, as much as possible.
Kabbalah is theology in the fullest sense - including ontology, cosmogony and cosmology. It is not speculative philosophy based on human insight nor theories derived from human reasoning. It is a study, as it were, of Divinity and of the relationship between G‑d and His Creation, based on the premises of revealed truth.
Kabbalah…uncovers many of the infinite layers of the secrets of life, of Creation…
Kabbalah takes man beyond the normative understanding of reason. It goes beyond the exoteric part of Torah and transcends normative existence. It uncovers many of the infinite layers of the secrets of life, of Creation, of the soul, of the heavenly spheres. It penetrates beyond the garments and the body of the Torah. It is the very core and soul of Torah, the ultimate revelation of Divinity - exposing the inner meaning, effects and purpose of Torah and mitzvahs. The illumination emanating from Kabbalah ignites the soul of man, setting it on fire in the awareness of a deeper and higher reality. Its study and insights are themselves mystical experiences. Kabbalah is all this - but always and exclusively within the context of Torah. As a body cannot function without a soul, so the soul is ineffective without the body. The soul of the Torah, (nistar, the esoteric part of the Torah) can never be separated from the body of the Torah (nigleh, the exoteric parts; halacha, the commandments and practices prescribed by the Torah). Kabbalah reduced to spiritual or philosophical symbolism, stripped from the observance of the mitzvahs, is worthless mumbo-jumbo, an empty shell.
This is the first and foremost difference between Jewish mysticism and all other kinds and forms. That is why Jewish mysticism can never fall into the category of a cult.
The great mystics and philosophers outside Judaism, in the East and in the West, were honest and sincere sages. They did seek truth. They did not look for answers to justify or verify any of their preconceived notions. They were not indulging their egos. And many did discover and develop profound theories and insights which stir the imagination and move the human spirit. Some had glimpses of ultimate reality. Yet, in spite of all this, they worked in a chameleonic void. They could move only as far as finite and fallible man is able to reach on his own. Their insights or findings, therefore, are either humanly verifiable (that is, logically self-evident truth or tautologies) or else speculative truth which at best contains an element of possibility but never the assurance of certitude.
Kabbalah…builds on the revealed truth of Torah…
Kabbalah, on the other hand, builds on the revealed truth of Torah. The validity of its speculative theories and subjective experiences must be, and is, tested and verified by that truth in order to be worthy of consideration, to be viable and acceptable. It has, and continually uses, objective criteria to make it consistent with, and as reliable as, halacha.
At this point, though, we must realize that Jewish mysticism - Kabbalah and Chassidism - is not just a legitimate and respectable part and dimension of authentic Judaism, of Torah.
The Torah is an organism, a complete whole in which every part is most intimately interrelated and interwoven with every other part; in which everything is interdependent upon everything else. The Torah is an organism analogous and parallel to, and in complete interaction with, the organism of the universe in general and the organism of man in particular. No part or particle, therefore, can be taken in isolation from the others.
Thus, even as it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to pursue the study and practice of the "body" of the Torah - halacha; mitzvahs - so it is obligatory and essential for each and every one of us to pursue the study and inspiration of the "soul" and fruits of the Torah and its interpretation.
To be sure, each of us is limited by his or her natural capacities. No one can absorb the totality of the Torah in its divine infinity. But everyone can and must actualize his or her own potential, can and must reach out as far as his or her abilities can take them.
In fact, nowadays more than ever before, there is a most urgent need for the illumination and inspiration of the mystical dimension of the Torah. This very need is the great vision and contribution of the Baal Shem Tov and Chassidism.
This is what it is all about, and the rest is but commentary. So now let us go forth and study - "to comprehend and to discern, to perceive, to learn and to teach, to observe, to practice and to fulfill all the teachings of G‑d's Torah with love."
The next article in the Kabbalah for Beginners tutorial: Contemplative and Practical Kabbalah
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