"To be one with the One, and thus is established the mystery of 'On that day G‑d shall be One and His Name One'

(Zechariah 14:9)

Mystics and their followers are often asked what the Kabbalah and Chassidism can tell us today.

Considering that Jewish mysticism gained prominence relatively late, of what concern, then, is it to the 'historical Jew'?

To be sure, the Jewish mystical tradition goes back to Biblical times and is firmly rooted in the Talmud and Midrashim.

Nonetheless, we must recognize the fact that it was generally kept concealed, with involvement restricted to a select group of sages.

Why then the 'flood' of mystical writings and teachings in modern times, the attempts to popularize the mystic tradition?

Such questions have been asked (and were anticipated) ever since the mystics removed the screens that restricted their teachings to yechidei segulah - a chosen few initiates.

Once they furthered their aim by publishing introductory tracts and expositions, they spent a good number of pages to deal with the answers. They trace the historical roots and validity of the Kabbalah and its integral place within normative Judaism.

They demonstrate the new vistas it opens, which prove to be of great philosophical, moral as well as Halachic consequence.

They stress the fact that these teachings could and should be publicized and popularized, especially in the sixth millennium which is ikveta deMeshicha - the era on the very heels of the Messianic redemption.

Their answers, though well-seasoned by age, are no less relevant to our day and age than to theirs. But before indicating a few symptomatic aspects from this vast realm of thought, some points of clarification are in order. Hopefully they will help hurdle some oft-held misconceptions that stand in the way of appreciating our mystical tradition.

Kabbalah: Jewish Tradition

First of all, our sole concern is with Jewish mysticism, and this includes the authoritative Kabbalah and Chassidism as one.

That some of its ideas may be found elsewhere as well, in non- Jewish sources (such as Platonism and Eastern Mysticism), is interesting but irrelevant.

Alleged common sources, textual criticism, arguments about temporal priority and 'who was influenced by who,' may be fascinating hunting-grounds for the 'mysticist,' offering unlimited scope for speculative theories and hypotheses, but they are of no practical significance whatsoever.

Jewish mysticism, as Judaism in general, does not claim exclusive rights to all insights: "Should a person tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it!" (3).

No less a source than the Zohar, the basic text of Jewish mysticism, interprets the Midrashic comment that the words "without blemish" (Numbers 19:2) can be applied to the Greeks, "because they are very close to the way of the (true) Faith, more than any of the others." (4). Commentators on the Zohar note that this refers specifically to the pre-Aristotelians whose views coincide in some respects with those of our tradition. (5)

The Zohar already recognizes that a number of ideas and concepts of Eastern philosophies "are close to the teachings of the Torah."

Yet the Zohar cautions to stay away from their works in order not to be drawn to their idolatrous ideas and practices, lest one be led away from the service of G‑d: "All those books mislead people. For the people of the East used to be sages who had inherited their wisdom from Abraham. He had given it to the children of his concubines, as it is written, 'To the children of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them to the land of the East' (Genesis 25:6).

Later on, however, they were drawn to many (idolatrous) sides with their wisdom 1 why G‑d allows some efficacy to idolatrous practices and shrines which are altogether prohibited by the Torah (a principle comparable to the premise of G‑d allowing miracles to be performed by false prophets, as stated in Deuteronomy 13:2.."

The point is that Jewish mysticism is Kabbalah, in the literal sense of that word: a source-and time-hallowed tradition, strictly within the framework of historical, normative Judaism.

Its masters are the recognized authoritative teachers of both Talmudic and later times, and all its premises and doctrines are within, and subject to, Torah and Halachah.

It is part of Torah shebe'al peh - the Oral Tradition, and like the other parts thereof has authoritative objectivity and legitimacy as an authentic and integral part of Judaism proper.

(The objective character of mysticism is perceived in the strict insistence on total dependence on an authentic chain of tradition for all its premises; see Ramban, Introduction to his commentary on the Torah, and his commentary on Genesis 1:1.)

The intimate relationship with, and dependency on, Halachah, cannot be emphasized sufficiently. A favourite contention of the 'mysticist,' as erroneous as it is ignorant and mischievous, creates an imaginary tension between Halachah and Kabbalah.

There is no ground whatsoever for this contention. Authentic Jewish mysticism is inseparable from Halachah. It could hardly be different when noting how much of the Kabbalistic and Chassidic writings relate Halachic concepts and details to the mystical view of cosmic reality and the interactions between the spiritual and the mundane. Suffice it to note that most of the greatest Halachic authorities and codifiers were also Kabbalists.

This fundamental principle was emphasized by the authorities of all ages, and most acutely so by two of the greatest giants in both Halachah and Kabbalah in recent times: R. Chaim of Voloszin quotes his master R. Elijah of Vilna, known as the Gaon, to the effect that it is absolutely impossible to speak of a contradiction between the Talmud and Zohar, between the exoteric (revealed) and the esoteric (mystical) facets of the Torah.

R. Hillel of Paritsh quotes R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Rav, to the effect that it is inconceivable that the mystics contradict the Talmud or the posskim (codifiers) who derive their decisions from the Talmud.

Even as Halachah stripped of the mystical dimension is like a body without a soul, so is the mystical tradition separated from Halachah, at best, like a soul without a body - aimlessly floating about in a void.

Mysticism: Another Dimension

Secondly: An objective view and appreciation of mysticism needs first and foremost an opening of the mind, a sincere and complete commitment to the pursuit of truth, no less than one must be prepared to give to the study of any other branch of knowledge. An appreciation of mysticism may require a reorientation of thought and attitude from what we are attuned to by a background and approach that focuses completely on practicality and empirical understanding. With the Kabbalah and Chassidism one does not enter a new or different world but a new and different dimension of one and the same world, a different plane of thought that transcends previously held modes and categories.

One must cast away the prejudices imposed by rationalism and scientism. At the very least one must allow a measure of admissibility to the possibility of an order of reality that is not our normative phenomenal one, and allow the possibility of methods of perception that differ from our usual ones. This will indeed reduce our phenomenal world to no more than a partial reality; but surely it would be highly unscientific to deny these possibilities.

The sincere pursuit of true knowledge is subject to a sense of humility. There must be a willingness to surrender the ego of self-assurance and to override personal bias. In the words of our sages: "Pay close attention to all the words because it is no vain thing for you" (Deuteronomy 32:46-47) - "if it does appear to be a 'vain thing,' it is so 'for you,' 'because of you,' because of the deficiency in your apprehension!

A classical precedent for this principle is found in the following passage from the Talmud: When R. Zeyra left to ascend to the Holy Land, he fasted one hundred fasts in order to forget the methodology of the Babylonian Talmud so that it would not trouble him in the study and acquisition of the Jerusalem Talmud.

To put all this into perspective, it will do well to ponder a parable of the Baal Shem Tov: A musician once played a beautiful melody with immensely moving sweetness. The beauty of that music so enraptured the listeners that they were unable to control themselves and felt compelled to leap and dance, almost reaching the ceiling. The closer one came to the musician, there was a pull to move still closer the better to hear, attaining ever greater pleasure and dancing ever more.

In the midst of all this, a deaf man entered. Unable to hear the beautiful music, he could not appreciate what was happening.

All he perceived was people dancing intensely and a man on stage motioning strangely with some kind of instrument in his hands. To his mind they were all mad. He thought to himself: "What kind of celebration is going on here?"

Now if this deaf man were wise, he would realize and understand that those people were moved by the beauty and pleasantness of the musical sounds coming from the instrument, and he, too, would have danced. The moral is obvious...

Mysticism vs. Scientism

Thirdly: The modern attitude to the universe is one of rational inquiry. It seeks in the phenomenal world - its sole realm of concern - a scientific uniformity to which all facts and factors must conform. The search is endless, but this does not deter the scientist. He refuses to admit defeat or the possibility of exception to his underlying scientific premises.

'Scientism' and would-be 'objective rationalism' thus often slide into an uncritical dogmatism second to none, and a new 'religion' is born: a 'religion' of ever-new and changing revelations, with an endless chain of 'high-priests' reflecting the moods, conditions and revelations of their times.

There is a degree of legitimacy in this approach.

Despite its glaring shortcomings, it is to be credited for tremendous technological advances. Nonetheless, in attempting to establish his type of uniformity, the modern rationalist paradoxically creates, in effect, an increasingly disturbing pluralism and an alienating divisiveness.

Even as he converts the universe into a mammoth machine, he breaks it up into innumerable particles, separate from - and non-related to - one another.

His physiomonistic pantheism concerns itself only with species and universals. Individual identities become sacrifices for the sustenance of his deus in machina. The human individual (as well as any other particulars) diminishes in proportion to the growth of nature and the universe in the scientific, experimental grasp or consciousness. Human individual life is hedged in by a precarious day-to-day, here-and-now, existence.

Some may take this as a stark fact of life.

There is, however, an intuitive categorical and transcending sense of morality deeply embedded in the soul and mind of man (and often emboldened by a host of empirical facts) which revolts against this callous materialism which leaves us with nothing but barren factualism. The resulting tension between the haunting Lorelei of modern rational inquiry and the groping attempts at human self-assertion lies at the root of many, if not all, of our present-day neuroses and vexations, and "he that increases knowledge increases pain."

The apparent alternatives are resignation or rejection: resignation to the admittedly frustrating paradox, and making the best of it, or the elimination of either the modern method or the recognition of individuality. Obviously, neither of these choices is satisfactory. At this point mysticism offers a viable solution, a new approach. No doubt that this accounts for the recent popularity of mysticism, in both legitimate and illegitimate forms. From our point of view, however, this viable alternative is at best an incidental fringe-benefit.

Jewish mysticism did not come into being to be a panacea for social, mental or emotional problems. As already stated, it is an integral part of Torah, an authentic part of Divine Revelation and instruction. It is part of the tradition that is subject to the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the study of Torah (16), both as an end in itself as well as to enlighten and ennoble man, to guide us along the path of the Divinely intended human self- realization and self-perfection.