The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition
By Lawrence Kushner
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 184 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 17, 2010
Lawrence Kushner has written quite a few books on Jewish mysticism that are published by Jewish Lights Books, including volumes on Chassidic thinking, stories, and several introductions to mysticism, even one directed to Christians. This volume is part of Jewish Lights Publishing's The Way Into series, which includes volumes such as The Way into Torah, The Way into Women and Men, and The Way into Jews and Non-Jews. Kushner offers a large number of page-length quotes from various mystical sources and his interpretations of them to show how different people understood mysticism.
Some people define mysticism as follows: Thinking people want to know the truth. There are three broad approaches to the truth. The first, the method of the ancient philosophers, is the scientific method, by carefully examining the world, just as a scientist dissects an animal and puts its pieces under a microscope to discover what one can about the makeup of an animal. This scientific method uses logic. It insists that it is a human obligation to think. The second approach is religion, which is based for the most part on ancient traditions, that is ideas that ancients had, and a belief that there was once a divine revelation that passed on information about the world and proper behavior. Passive people who are only interested in religion do not experiment or think independently, and most of them are bothered by people who do. The third approach is mysticism. Mysticism has its own traditions and its own view of revelation, even insisting that God revealed mysticism, but, like religion, it does not experiment and does not use logic. Mystics depend on intuition, on a flash insight they achieve that is not, like logic, based on any facts or reality. There are also many people, in fact most people, who combine aspects of each of the three approaches.
Kushner does not take this analytical, perhaps over-scholarly approach to understand mysticism. As stated previously, he spices his book with interesting, usually down-to-earth, and always thought-provoking quotes from famous mystics and from scholars who analyzed them. These include the fifteenth century Chaim Vital, the student of Ari, who lived in Safed in Israel, who did not write down his own ideas; Moshe Cordovero, his contemporary; the earlier thirteenth century Zohar and the fourteenth century Nachmanides; the still earlier Sefer Habahir and Midrash Tehillim; as well as from many later Chassidic rabbis, such as Dov Baer of Mezritch.
Kushner introduces many selections with words that have become code phrases in Jewish mysticism, such as astir panim, "God hiding His face," sitra achra, "the other side," and or ganuz, "the hidden light." The volume is also filled with expansive explanations of mystical concepts generally as well as explanations of the specific selections that are quoted.
One example is the biblical Ezekiel 1:1-28, which mystics consider "the paradigm Jewish mystical experience." Kushner explains it. He describes how in the first century Ezekiel's "vision of the chariot spawned whole communities, yordei merkavah ("descenders of the chariot") seeking similar epiphanies." He relates the prophet's vision to passages in the biblical book Exodus. He acquaints us with the term maaseh merkavah, "the tale of the chariots", a term that mystics translate as mysticism (but which the rationalist Moses Maimonides understood as metaphysics). Kushner ends this section by quoting the 28 Ezekiel verses. Thus, in short, readers of Kushner's volume, which is a fine introduction to mysticism, will read a host of mystical texts, have them explained, and learn mystical terminology.