Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life
Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections
Edited by Lawrence Fine, Eitan Fishbane, and Or N. Rose
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 223 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 1, 2011
This volume contains twenty-seven essays on Jewish mysticism. It prints classical texts from writers with a mystical approach to life with follow-up discussions from modern authors on how they understand the texts and how the classical writers answer questions, issues, and themes that interest modern Jews.
The editors understand Jewish Mysticism as "a particular way of approaching the Torah and the life of mitzvoth" (Torah commandments). They see "hidden jewels" of mysticism in the Torah, "deep mysteries of divinity (and) the dynamics of God's inner life." Mystics, they say, have "a transformed consciousness of God." They feel "the immanent presence of God" for there is "an always-flowing force of light and energy that can be imagined in nearly infinite number of ways." Mysticism has power. It is able "to infuse the life of mitzvoth with spiritual vitality and purpose." The mitzvoth become "a ladder of ascent to divinity and to the individual's deep connection to the Source of all being."
Rationalists, such as Moses Maimonides, would reject all of this and advise people to rely on science and reality, not on feelings and imagination. They say that it is impossible to "know" God or "cleave" to Him. True, the Torah has deeper meanings that more educated people can discern, but these are rational ideas; there is no indication in the Torah that it has mystical teachings; in fact every biblical pronouncement is practical and worldly; the Torah focuses on behavior. Yes, people can speak metaphorically about ascending a ladder, but the ladder they ascend should be the ladder of education and self-improvement, to be all that one can be. It is nice to speak about "spirituality," but virtually impossible to define what it means.
Yet the mystical approach of the editors and their contributors is the worldview of many people. Thus, agree or not, it is important to know these ideas to understand the notions of many people. Besides, even rationalists can find good ideas behind the mystical language and images.
For example, Rabbi Nancy Flam quotes a two page analysis by Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (died 1797) where he quotes a midrashic homiletical version of the visit by three strangers to the biblical Abraham in Genesis 18. Abraham rises and rushes to welcome the strangers to treat them hospitably, after telling God, who was visiting him, to stay put and not to go away. Rabbi Menahem offers his interpretation of the tale and Rabbi Flam comments on it. She raises and answers many questions, such as: How did Abraham experience God's visit? How and why could he dare leave God and welcome strangers? How could he tell God to wait in a single place when God is everywhere? How should people relate to God? What does "cleave to God" mean?
Another example is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's take on a one page quote from one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (died 1810). Rabbi Levi asks why tradition states that the prophet Elijah will appear in the future and resolve any unanswered religious questions. Why doesn't the tradition say that Moses the law giver will come and answer questions? After all, it was Moses who gave the law. Rabbi Zalman explains the Hasidic rabbi's response. Moses died over three thousand years ago. However there is a tradition that Elijah never died; he literally went to heaven in a chariot; the chariot trip is not a metaphor for dying. Moses only understood how to apply Torah to life during his lifetime. But people and circumstances change. Elijah, who never died and who is still alive today, knows the current situations of people and the world. What we need, Rabbi Zalman concludes, is "a vision of Judaism that (is) in deep dialogue with the past and responsive to life in the present." This what Elijah represents.
These examples show how this book is informative, thought-provoking, and has good ideas. Thus it is worthwhile reading even for non-mystics and especially for the mystically-minded.