What this Topic Means to Me:
By: David Bashevkin
Ever since I was a little child, I was fascinated by mysticism. In third grade, I used to lie to my friends that my grandfather, a rabbi (this part was true), was also a Jewish mystic (not at all true). What drew me to mysticism? I think it was a fairly simple, dare I say childish, commitment that there is more to the world than what we can rationally see or explain. That was the way I saw the world then and continue to see this world. With time, mysticism became a more formal system and approach through which I applied that founding principle to God, Judaism, texts, and – most importantly – myself.
Mysticism can seem like a troubling proposition for those committed to purely rational thought. Particularly as analytic philosophy and it’s more practical cousin, computer programming, become more prized forms of thinking. Mystical thinking has been discarded by many as a relic of a more ignorant human past in favor of computation as representative of a more idealistic future. While I appreciate the advancements that the modern world has achieved, I do think it can at times obscure what is, in fact, real.
In twelfth grade, I had a brilliant art teacher named Darren Singer. He had a striking artistic mind and a very warm spiritual soul. He taught me how to charcoal and introduced me to the musical sounds of Medeski Martin & Wood. His most lasting influence on my life was from a small book he recommended called The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I later discovered that my distant cousin, Stacy Schiff, wrote a biography on the author that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Little Prince is a profound book. While it is written for adults, the book is actually dedicated to a childhood friend and reads:
I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it.
In many ways the entire book proceeds from the sentiment within this dedication. It is a book about recovering the lost innocence and wonder of childhood. Each chapter shares a different short story of the fantastical travels of the mysterious Little Prince as he tries to understand why the adult masses in the world seem to occupy themselves with such trivial behavior. In one of the most famous and moving passages in the book, the protagonist explains how he has kept his childlike wonder:
Here is my secret. A very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
I think this moving line captures much of what mysticism tries to cultivate: learning to see with your heart. Mysticism begins to articulate what otherwise would be ineffable.
Shalom Carmy, in a powerful essay entitled Forgive Us, Father-in-Law For We Know Not What to Think: Letter to a Philosophical Dropout, describes the difficulty of seeing that which is otherwise invisible to the eye:
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that if you point at something, a normal human being will want to know what you’re pointing at; a dog will come up and sniff your finger. That is how a dog thinks. Adopting this perspective, you can consistently assert that a painting has no transcendent meaning—that it is no more than an arrangement of colors on a surface, one which people happen to interpret as a picture of another thing, and you can argue that the fact that people ascribe depth and meaning to this visual image is to be explained fully through reference to the arrangement of these persons’ nervous system. You can dismiss spiritual insight the same way: our supposed experience of God is nothing but a physiological reaction to mundane sensory input—keep your eye on the finger, not at what it signifies.
The difference between staring at a finger versus what the finger is pointing towards is an apt metaphor for how Jewish mysticism refocuses our perspective. Jewish mysticism in particular is less about a confined set of texts than a reorientation of sorts towards understanding what Jewish law, Jewish texts, and, most importantly, life itself is pointing towards.
I recently wrote an article for Tradition, as part of their symposium on Jewish thought, entitled, “Jewish Thought: A Process, Not a Text.” In order to introduce my approach to Jewish thought, I introduce readers to the three role models who in turn introduced me to the works of Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (1823-1900), a Hasidic thinker who played an essential role in my personal development. Each of my teachers – Rav Moshe Weinberger, Dr. Yakov Elman, and Dr. Ari Bergmann – highlighted a different component of how Jewish thought should impact our thinking. Rav Moshe Weinberger, whose introduction to the works of Rav Tzadok I have discussed in other contexts, modeled the importance of experiential resonance: mysticism that both reflects and elevates personal experience. Dr. Yakov Elman introduced me to the importance of omnisignificance: “the basic assumption underlying all of rabbinic exegesis that the slightest details of the biblical text have meaning that is both comprehensible and significant.” And Dr. Ari Bergmann introduced me to the world of consilience, a jumping together of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. Each of these animate the world of Jewish mysticism ensuring that it is not reduced to a body of texts, but can become a life-guiding perspective. As I write:
Studying Jewish thought—with a focus on this unifying process, rather than on learning a specified body of texts—is an antidote for the drawbacks engendered by the push towards immediate practical application. Jewish thought, then, is not a text—it is an orientation. Experiential resonance, the search for omnisignificance, and a search for consilience can transform a focus on the formal study of texts about Jewish thought into a life filled with moment of meaning, that ultimately become a more thoughtful life, and a more meaningful Judaism.
Talmud says that prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to children (Bava Batra 12b). At some point in all of our lives the childlike wonder we each had begins to diminish. The Little Prince was frustrated that adults mistook his drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant for a hat. C.S. Lewis bemoaned those who looked at a finger instead of towards where it was pointing. And Jewish mysticism helps restore our wonder and focus our perspective on what is truly essential. “It is not what is on the page; it is what is within us.”
Wonder Post-Wonder: Topic Introduction
By: Yehuda Fogel
Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)
In the late 15th century, Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), 8th shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, sent a damaged bowl for repairs. When the bowl was returned, it was mended but ugly and stapled, motivating local craftsmen to try their hand at more elegant styles of repairing broken objects. And so kintsugi was born. Kintsugi, literally “golden joinery,” is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with a resin developed to look like solid gold (and often using real gold).
Through kintsugi, cracks and breakages do not spell the end of a pot or bowl, rather they set the way for a deeper adornment. As the Jewish bard Leonard Cohen murmured in his epic song “Anthem”:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
The kintsugi method treats this literally, as cracks birth golden rivers streaming through the broken ceramic. Brokenness is no longer hidden or thrown away; instead, the possibilities and power hidden in the cracks shine in full relief. This is a matter of design – kintsugi is related to the broader Japanese value of wabi sabi, a world view that emphasizes the impermanence and imperfection that comprise the state of reality. Adorning the very imperfections of this world with gold is a subtle yet powerful choice to live with greater beauty, in spite of it all.
In the twentieth century, our world cracked. Like a simple clay pot, fallen and in pieces, the world shattered. Systems of truth and power, ethics, art, and culture could not stop the atrocities of the 20th century. For many, this was the age of the death of men, with the death toll rising ever higher and higher. Others insisted the world lost even more than the catastrophic loss of life. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “In Auschwitz died, not only man, but also the idea of man.”
An innocence was lost in the 20th century. Facing the catastrophe, humanity now knew uncomfortable truths about what both man and God could do. The act of faith, and particularly the wonder of mysticism, are in many ways built upon a foundation of the kind of innocence now lost.
Where can a people go, a person go, a world go, after the death of innocence? Enter second innocence. Second innocence, or second naivete, is a position that affirms innocence in the face of all the challenges to innocence. Second innocence is the affirmation of innocence, of truth, of beauty, in the aftermath of a broken world. This is the decision to live a life of wonder, even though one knows all the ways that the world may not be filled with wonder.
Why does modernity need mysticism? It is no small coincidence that some of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of Jewish mysticism have occurred in the immediate aftermath of catastrophe. In the wake of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, suffering the consequences of the inquisition, the Arizal and a group of his friends, teachers, and students in Safed led an intellectual revolution that profoundly shaped the future of Jewish thought.
In the aftershock of catastrophe, perhaps mysticism is most needed. The mystical impulse is not easily defined, as there are many qualities and aspects to mysticism. Even Jewish mysticism has been practiced and studied in many different matrices. But we can turn to the wealth of words and ideas within the many mystical texts of the Jewish people to find wisdom and wonder in the modern era. We can look to our mystical thinkers to better appreciate the unseen aspects in a world in which everything is seen, everything is visible.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs invoked the words of English poet Elizabeth Barret Browning when exploring the mystical impulse. Her words offer a window into what we might hope to see:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.
In the past century – and in the past year – we have seen the world aflame. Perhaps it is time to look with wonder at the fire. It is not for nothing that as the world has aged, the mystical tradition has opened up. Texts and philosophies that were once secret, obscure, and impenetrable – esoterica studied only by the most righteous – have been opened up to contemporary readers. Perhaps the rarefied thought of Jewish mysticism has opened up in the modern era – from 1840 until today – specifically to address the needs of our disenchanted world. In a world lacking adornment, in which every crack is seen, we can turn to mysticism to remember that there is something more, under the surface of ourselves, our world, and our religion.
Joey Rosenfeld: Can Mysticism Heal Us?
By: Yehuda Fogel
Franz Kafka, the Jewish-German writer who understood well the complexity of engaging with the suffering of the world, once wrote in a letter:
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
Kafka is saying that the suffering that occurs from holding back from suffering is the only truly avoidable suffering; the pain of avoidance is the avoidable pain. So often in our lives, it is our desperate attempts to not engage with our own pain and the pain of our world that lead to untold further suffering, greater complications than we first encountered.
Torah, particularly the Torah of mysticism, provides both an exit and an entrance to the sufferings of this world. One route a mystic of any faith can take is world-negation, dismissing pain and all of this world as a false reality that pales before the true, spiritual reality. This perspective chooses to dismiss the sufferings of this world, in favor of a deeper, truer, spiritual reality. A different path mystics can take is engaging with the suffering of the world, encountering the fullness of the brokenness of the world. This path allows the presence of God despite the suffering of the world, and perhaps even because of it. Friedrich Neitzsche once said that “nothing decisive is ever built except on a ‘despite everything.’” In the idiom of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one must find joy and meaning with it all, in spite of it all, despite it all – אף על פי כן. The thoughts and path of Joey Rosenfeld move beyond ‘despite the brokenness,’ into ‘precisely because of the brokenness.’ Joy and meaning can be found not only despite, not only אף על פי כן, the brokenness, but even דווקא, precisely because of the brokenness.
Beauty and meaning and joy are present in the world not only despite the brokenness of our fragile world, but precisely because of it. In a lecture on “despite” and “precisely”, Joey cites a line from the Mittler Rebbe, the second leader of Lubavitch, followed by his own commentary:
“I heard from my father who heard from his teacher [the Maggid of Mezritch]: It is impossible to understand the secrets of the Torah unless one has a natural darkness in their nature.”
Joey Rosenfeld: If a person wants to understand the benefit of secrets of the Torah, there has to be an acknowledgement that things aren’t fine on a surface level. If a person doesn’t recognize that things aren’t fine on the surface, there is no need to descend into the reservoirs of what lies underneath. Somebody who feels like everything is in order on the outside has no need for interiority. One who wants to understand the secrets of Torah, must have a proclivity towards the brokenness of life.
Joey works with the very human ground of suffering, as an addiction counselor and spiritual director in a drug rehab clinic. In a touching profile of Joey’s work and thought in Mishpacha Magazine, Joey explains this process, and the wellspring of hope that is buried in the depths of suffering:
While I’m not affiliated with any particular chassidus, to my mind Rebbe Nachman of Breslov speaks most closely to this recognition that it’s specifically within a person’s pain or suffering or discomfort that he can come closest to Hashem. Not because that recognition forces you to do teshuvah and become better, but because it forces you to acknowledge that G-d is so large that He’s even found in those places as well. And I’ve found that my ‘clients’ in the center where I work — heroin addicts, hardened alcoholics, and other people who you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley — can relate in a very real way. You see, Rebbe Nachman says two things: that it’s forbidden to give up hope, and that really, there’s no such thing as giving up hope. That even when a person reaches a place where it seems he’s lost hope, even there there’s hope. That’s because that deep, G-dly part of the soul is never detached from Hashem, and can never really give up. I call it the irreducible part of the soul, that no matter how low we fall, as long as we’re still breathing, it’s there.
And on a certain level, all addiction, from both a psychological and spiritual perspective, is an attempt to numb the anguish of losing hope, to quiet that voice that drives the discomfort by telling you how things should be different, that you’ll never find your place, instead of being totally okay with who you are and where Hashem put you.
Hope – in spite of it all. Hope – because of it all.
For many contemporary thinkers and spiritual seekers, Kafka represents a kind of modern mystic, or as Robert Altar puts it – “Kafka as Kabbalist.” This identification, like Kafka himself, provokes without providing easy understanding or interpretation. To think about it, read Kafka’s short story “Before the Law”, and the correspondences between Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem about Kafka. On one level, it is the very desperate drive for meaning and hope beyond the fractures of this world. However, it is through the fractures of this world that truly highlight the mystical impulse of Kafka. Walter Benjamin wrote this of Kafka:
To do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure. The circumstances of this failure are manifold. One is tempted to say: once he was certain of eventual failure, everything worked out for him en route as in a dream. There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.
Encountering and engaging with the suffering world – from within the world – and discovering hope and beauty on the very ground of failure: such is one doorway to mysticism; such is one doorway to the world that mysticism offers.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, once said that “earthly hope must be killed; only then can one be saved by true hope.” Albert Camus, philosopher and author, felt that Kierkegaard’s line was true of Kafka as well. While we often think of Kafka as a writer of literature of despair, Camus sees in Kafka the death of early hope, as well as the audacity of true hope. In his lecture on the impossible hope of Kafka, Joey paints a picture of the desperate, impossible, moving hope that constitutes humanity, and that has moved the Jewish experience.
Joey Rosenfeld seeks healing and hope in this fractured generation – a generation seeking hope after hope, a generation seeking wholeness in a broken world. To get a sense of the deep learning and humble wisdom that Joey brings to Twitter (and the world), look at his popular “Is” series of lists, in which Joey puts diverse thinkers across time and space in conversation about one topic. Listen to Joey to understand that the fractures of life constitute the ground of joy, and that we can find hope within hopelessness. Joey joins us to talk about his experience with mysticism, his path, and what mysticism offers a broken world.
Read important takeaways from Joey’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
Dr. Ora Wiskind: How do you Read a Mystical Text?
By: Yehuda Fogel
The Jews have long been a word-obsessed people. Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the great philosopher and translator, said some of the most tasteful words about the love for books that the Jews have carried through the diaspora:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. If your soul satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
In Jewish thought, the four-fold interpretive process is referred to as the ‘Pardes’ in Hebrew. Though literally translated as garden, Pardes stands for Pshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod; Literalism, allegory, interpretation/hermeneutics, and the secretive/mystical. The imagery is interesting – why a garden? Perhaps it is because, like the verdant lushness of a garden, there is something inviting and open about this method, the Pardes providing an opportunity to experience the sense of immersion one might feel in a garden. The Pardes, and the multivalent meanings and uses of language have long been a characteristic quality of many streams of Jewish mysticism. Reading then becomes not just a tool for learning, but a spiritual endeavor in its own right.
Ora Wiskind looks at Hasidic texts from a literary perspective, and her work is a rich example of how deep reading and deep spirituality often can and should go hand in hand. But this has not always been so simple.
Reflecting on the death of William Butler Yeats in 1939, W. H. Auden famously declared, “poetry makes nothing happen.” The timing is important: in 1939, the world was on the cusp of the great nightmare that no amount of poetry or literature could stave off. Humanism could not stop the atrocities of the 20th century, and in some ways, they even contributed to their own destruction. The historian Martin Malia writes that “it takes a great ideal to produce a great crime,” and some of the greatest perpetrators of cruelty were inspired by earlier works of art and poetry. And even if not directly responsible, the idea of engaging with poetry and literature in the face of such inhumanity seems unimaginable. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” So wrote Theodor Adorno in 1949, struggling with the inefficacy of poetic meaning after the atrocities of the Holocaust. Does poetry, or indeed literature, help a world in pain? To Adorno, time had taught an uncomfortable about the limitations of literature.
This broadly sketches the contours of one approach to texts – that poetry ‘does nothing,’ and perhaps more broadly, that ideas, books, and words represent a realm independent of real life. And maybe, precisely because it exists apart from reality, the world of words – of literature – offers an escape from the barbarities of this world. Even if literature cannot stop atrocities, it can help you escape them for a moment. Text and life are separate domains in this perspective, the ‘ivory tower’ of ideas removed from the rest of the kingdom of life.
Another approach to reading texts does not ignore the synaptic gap between books and life, but seeks deep meaning from within that gap nonetheless. George Steiner, the Jewish literary critic who contributed greatly to the idea of the text as Jewish homeland, wrote powerfully about what a spiritually open stance towards reading might look like:
To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession. In the early stages of epilepsy there occurs a characteristic dream (Dostoevsky tells of it). One is somehow lifted free of one’s own body; looking back, one sees oneself and feels a sudden, maddening fear another presence is entering into one’s own person, and there is no avenue of return. Feeling this fear, the mind gropes to a sharp awakening. So it should be when we take in hand a major work of literature or philosophy, of imagination or doctrine. It may come to possess us so completely that we go, for a spell, in fear of ourselves and in imperfect recognition. He who has read Kafka’s Metamorphosis and can look into his mirror unflinching may technically be able to read print, but is illiterate in the only sense that matters.
When he was twenty, Kafka wrote in a letter: ‘If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.’ Students of English literature, of any literature, must ask those who teach them, as they must ask themselves, whether they know, and not in their minds alone, what Kafka meant.
Students of the Torah understand this type of reading, and students of mystical Torah perhaps more than most. Torah, like Kafka’s book, must be “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” We can experience this quality, if we come to the book with openness.
Citing his teacher, Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin wrote the following, reflecting on the relationship between the Torah and this world:
That God created a book, and that is the world, and the commentary (on the book), and that is that Torah. For the Torah is akin to a commentary of God’s possessions.
This powerfully provocative statement is rich – what does it mean for the Torah to be a commentary on this world? How might we conceive of our own world as a text, and the Torah as a commentary? Perhaps the task of meaning-making is an interpretive task. Like reading a book or learning a sefer, we are granted a text, but it is our reading, our interpretation or narrative of that text that makes all the difference. (For a deep exploration of the broader context and implications of this concept, see Dovid Bashevkin’s early article “The World as a Book.”)
Thinking of our lives as a book – as a work with an author, characters, themes, and a narrative – allows us to think about the way we think of our lives. In Ora’s own words, from her Hasidic Commentary on the Torah:
Paul Ricoeur taught that human experience is inherently interpretive. Throughout our lives, we engage in creative dialogue in our search for meaning. Hermeneutics, or the work of interpretation for Ricoeur, is not confined to text, nor to authors of texts: its primary concern is with the worlds which these authors and texts open up. It is by an understanding of the worlds, actual and possible, opened up by language, that we may arrive at a better understanding of ourselves.
Ora Wiskind’s thought offers an engagement with the texts of the Jewish tradition that is both literary and life-affirming. Her work focuses on the ways we read Hasidic texts, and how appreciating the methods and meaning of a text can deepen our own lives. In her books on the stories of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the thought of Izhbitz-Radzyn, or in her masterful new work on Hasidic commentary, Ora demonstrates a scholarship that is illuminating and enriching to curious students and spiritual seekers alike. Listen now to Ora to learn more about her spiritual path, her approach in reading texts, and more.
Read important takeaways from Ora’s interview in our Weekend Reader.
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger: Can Mysticism Become a Community?
By: Yehuda Fogel
To talk about the history of Jewish mysticism is in many ways to talk about the history of the mystical community. We often think of the esoteric as a highly individualized path, far from the community. This experience is certainly well-founded in the textual histories of mystical Judaism. The books of Tanach are replete with such private revelations, mystical experiences that occur in the quiet of deserts and mountains to the many solitary shepherds that comprised the early Jewish leaders.
However, mysticism as a formal pursuit often was built upon community, and the communal component was often a foundational principle and guiding light to mystical journeying.
This idea goes back as far as the second century when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, protagonist of the Zohar, is accompanied by a loving and closely attached fraternity of friends, the original Chevrayah Kadisha, as it is termed in the Zohar. Life and lessons in the Zohar occurs within the framework of the loving companions of the Chevrayah, who are bound together by their shared goal of transcendence.
Today, Rav Moshe Weinberger is deeply engaged in the questions of mysticism and the community. Deeply learned and passionately immersed in Chassidic and Kabbalistic texts, Rav Weinberger built a community for all with a mystical heart in New York. More than two decades into this venture, Rav Weinberger’s battle to bring God and the soul back to communal institutions has resulted in a large-scale change in the way spirituality occurs. Rav Weinberger’s powerful truth-telling:
Our communities – spanning the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy – are swarming with Jews of all ages and backgrounds who feel little, if any, connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d). This is not a conclusion reached by way of scientific study or formal assessment, and it cannot be proved in a laboratory. It is, I believe, glaringly apparent to anyone who has taken a peek outside the bais medrash.
Rav Weinberger’s community is named for Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (1889-1943), the Chassidic Rebbe, author of the Torah commentary Aish Kodesh, and the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto until his untimely death in 1943. Like his fellow Warsawer Hillel Zeitlin, Rabbi Shapiro was deeply invested in the idea of mystical Jewish communities, writing a guidebook to building spiritual community. This stance places the mystical as an experience that is both intrapersonal and interpersonal. Rabbi Shapiro counsels in his Hachsharat Ha’Avreichim that
Each person should take for themselves one close friend, before whom one reveals all the hidden matters of the heart, spiritual and physical, concerns and joys, descents and ascents, and one’s friend will listen, console, advice, and rejoice to the best of their ability.
William Blake struck on the relationship that community and mysticism can have when he said something like this:
I sought my God,
my God I could not see
I sought my soul
My soul eluded me
I sought my brother
And found all three
God, my soul, and thee.
Community can be the heart of the mystical. Consider this: When talking to or about the members of the shul he founded and heads, Kehillas Aish Kodesh, Rav Weinberger often refers to them as “the chevrah from the Shul.” Not laypeople, congregants, but “the chevrah from the Shul” – the group, the community. Listen now to Rav Weinberger’s conversation with 18Forty for the characteristic wisdom, warmth, and depth that he brings to everything he does.
A Short Timeline of Jewish Mysticism
To better appreciate the complicated relationship between mysticism and the community, we put together a history of the mystical community, from antiquity until today.
Biblical Era: The Age of Prophecy
In the Biblical Era, we find prophetic revelations occurring to individuals and masses, from the private revelations of the foreparents to the mass revelations at the Yam Suf and Sinai. Many commentators see the public revelations as foretelling of the Messianic era, when revelation will be available for mass consumption, “like water covers the bed of the sea.” The prophetic literature is replete with mystical visions, and we are told as well of the בני נביאים, literally ‘children of prophets,’ or student prophets, mystical communities working towards revelation.
Post-Biblical Era: 1st-7th centuries
In the aftermath of the Biblical world, the mystical world opened up. Rabbinic literature gave cryptic reference to mystical ideas, such as mentioning “the account of the Chariot” (Hagiga 2:1) or of the magical acts accomplished by sages studying the Sefer HaYetzirah (Sanhedrin 65). The Zohar, featuring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is set in this time, and offers commentary on the Torah that is poetic, powerful, and is both highly allusive and elusive. The Heichalot and Merkavah literature, which describe the chambers that surround the Divine Throne and the angels that guard them, also emerged from this era. While far less popular than the Zohar, they are important early works of Jewish mysticism. The Shiur Komah, a highly unusual text that describes or associates the form of God’s glory with different parts of a supernal body, also emerged from this time.
Medieval Mysticism: 12th-13th Centuries
The 12th and 13th centuries were highly important times for the history of Kabbalah. Small groups of highly influential esotericists (appreciate and use this word, please!) raised the profile of mystical texts to the national stage. A tense relationship between Maimonidean rationalism and mysticism develops in this era, prompting the growth of each field. The ascetic pietists of Germany, known as the Chassidei Ashkenaz, are active in this time, with important figures such as Rav Yehuda HaChassid, Rav Shmuel HaChassid, and Eleazer ben Yehuda of Wormz. Groups of Kabbalists in Castille and Gerona were particularly active at this time, with figures such as Raavad and his son, Rav Yitzchak Saginahor (Isaac the Blind). Most importantly to this era is the emergence of the Zohar; Revealed (or something) by Rav Moshe de Leon, the Zohar becomes the fundamental book of Jewish mysticism for centuries to come.
From Safed to Shabtai Tzvi: 14th-17th Centuries
In the wake of the expulsion of the Jews from Spanish countries, the Arizal moves to Safed – and with a group of his followers, teachers, and friends – drastically reconstitutes the landscape of mystical Jewish thought. With his focus on Tzimtzum, God’s self-contraction, the Arizal and his students forged a new path in Jewish mysticism. Although he died young, ‘Lurianic’ Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, largely due to the writings of his student R. Chaim Vital. As Spain was a hotspot of Jewish mystical study, the expulsion of Jews resulted in the study of mysticism spreading throughout the Spanish diaspora. By the 17th century, Kabbalah is widely spread throughout the Jewish world, when the charismatic Shabtai Tzvi launches a messianic campaign that culminates in his apostasy, shaking the religious world deeply and resulting in deep tension around mystical study. Fears around mysticism linger, later leading to controversy around the Ramchal in Venice and Amsterdam after his own mystical devotions came to light in the mid-18th century.
Revolutions: 18th-20th Centuries
Still shaking from the Sabbatean controversy and the Chmielnicki uprising, the study of Kabbalah is located centrally within small, exclusive groups, such as in Broide, the Bet El Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and around the Vilna Gaon. Kabbalah occupies an important role in the Sephardic communities in Aleppo, Yemen, and Kurdistan at this time, with figures such as R. Shalom Shabazi. Such was the landscape until the mid-18th century, when a humble clay-digger and schoolteacher named Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov launched the Chassidic revolution. Although he left no written works, his students promulgated his revolution in religious belief and practice, and his emphasis on God, religious passion, and popular mysticism spread rapidly throughout Europe. This movement brought mystical ideas to the mainstream, illuminating popular Jewish thought and action by esoteric thought.
Mysticism Today: 20th-21st Centuries
As the contemporary era awakens, Chassidus has long familiarized vast segments of the population with mystical texts, and translations of the Zohar into Hebrew (first by the Baal HaSulam, R. Yehuda Ashlag) and English find large audiences. Several independent waves of Neo-Hasidic movements occur, each raising the relevance of mysticism for modernity. Hillel Zeitlin’s stirring call for a new mystical community marks the first wave of such movements, followed by the Aquarian era neo-Hasidic movement in post-War America helmed by Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach. In the early years of the 21st century, the Orthodox community has seen its own kindling of interest in Chassidic and mystical thought, due in large part to the leadership of Rav Moshe Weinberger and his students. That brings us to today, but the story is far from over.