Judaic Mysticism

Part 5 of 12 in the series Spiritual History

Mysticism and mystical experiences have been a part of Judaism since the time of Abraham. The Torah (Hebrew Bible = Christian Old Testament) contains many stories of mystical experiences, from visitations by angels to prophetic dreams and visions. The Talmud (Rabbinic Dogma about the Torah) considers the existence of the soul and when it becomes attached to the body.

Jewish tradition tells that the souls of all Jews were in existence at the time of the Giving of the Torah and were present at the time and agreed to the Covenant. There are many stories of places similar to Christian heaven and purgatory, of wandering souls and reincarnation. The Talmud contains hints of a mystical school of thought that was taught only to the most advanced students and was not committed to writing. There are several references in ancient sources to ma’aseh bereishit (the work of creation) and ma’aseh merkavah (the work of the chariot [of Ezekiel’s vision]), the two primary subjects of mystical thought at the time.

In the middle ages, many of these mystical teachings were committed to writing in books like the Zohar. Many of these writings were asserted to be secret ancient writings or compilations of secret ancient writings.

Like most subjects of Jewish belief, the area of mysticism is wide open to personal interpretation. Some traditional Jews take mysticism very seriously.

Mysticism is an integral part of Chasidic Judaism. (Hasidism)

Background of Kabbalah

The mystical school of thought came to be known as Kabbalah, from the Hebrew root Qof-Beit-Lamed, meaning “to receive, to accept.” The word is usually translated as “wisdom.” Passages from Kabbalistic sources are routinely included in traditional Jewish prayer books.

Kabbalah is often misunderstood. In Hebrew, the word does not have any sinister connotations. The English word “cabal” (a secret group of conspirators) is derived from the Hebrew word Kabbalah, yet neither the Hebrew word nor the mystical doctrines have any evil implications to Jews.

In fact the teachings of Kabbalah were popular among Christian intellectuals during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, who reinterpreted its doctrines to fit into their Christian dogma. In more recent times, Kabbalistic symbolism has been sometimes taken out of context for use in divination and magic that were never a part of the original Jewish teachings.

Mystic Jewish Teachings

According to kabbalah , God as YWH–also known as Ein Sof or “the Infinite”–cannot be comprehended by humans. However, God can be understood and described as revealed in ten mystical attributes, or sefirot.

There is a distinct similarity between the body locations of this and the Chakras from Jainism and Hinduism.

Tikkun ha-Olam embodies the most distinctively Jewish, as well as the the single most important ethical injunction of the Kabbalah: the command that humanity must restore and redeem a broken and fallen world.

Hasidic Mysticism

Torah says, “there is no place that is empty of [God]”

The Baal Shem Tov and the first generations of Hasidic rebbes placed a high value on devekut (becoming attached to God), on the anni­hilation of the self through ecstatic worship, on kavanah (intention and focus) as an absolute necessity in prayer. But where kavanah meant a knowledge of the intricacies of the sefirot to a kabbalist, for the Hasid it signified a sincere involvement of the heart in prayer.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav counseled his followers, “It is forbidden to despair. Never give up hope!” Worship would be accomplished with joy, with music and dance. Hasidic followers believed that the immanence of God in everything meant that even evil had a spark of the divine hidden somewhere within it.

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