The Bible in the Jewish Mystical Tradition
Elliot R. Wolfson
Background to the Jewish Mystical Tradition
Early SourcesThe mystical tradition in Judaism is a multifaceted phenomenon whose early roots reach back to the time of the Rabbis and that exerted religious influence well past the medieval era, when its full flowering occurred. It is not possible here to survey this tradition fully; it is a complex and by no means completely unified movement. Rather, this essay will concentrate on how the medieval mystical tradition, referred to as kabbalah, used the text of the Bible both as source and as guide for the mystical path. It is necessary first to define “mysticism,” particularly as it developed in Judaism. Mysticism can be seen as the quest, either by individual adherents to a religious tradition or by groups of the like‐minded, to experience the presence of God directly. The yearning to know God sometimes takes the form of an effort to recover such experiences believed to have been given to earlier figures in the tradition—Moses, the prophets—who were granted direct access to God. It can also be an effort to “see” the imageless God without the aid of images, in keeping with the commandment that God may not be represented by any image. Finally, the goal of this quest is sometimes the direct experience of God, while remaining oneself; sometimes, however, it is the individual's effort to return to the source of being to reunite with the Godhead even to the point of subsuming one's individuality in the infinite being of God. Mystical movements often arise when God is seen as most transcendent, and therefore most removed from ordinary human life: separate from the natural and human world, unknowable, incomprehensible.
Although specific influences on Jewish mysticism are often uncertain, one philosophical school did provide some of its leading ideas (as it did also for some forms of Christian and Islamic mysticism). That philosophy was Neoplatonism, especially as expressed in the writings of Plotinus (ca. 204–70 CE) who taught that there were three realms of being, designated by the technical term hypostases: the One, the unknowable, utterly simple, and self‐sufficient source of all being; Mind (Nous), the determinative foundation of all existents that, by virtue of contemplating the One, manifests the unified power in the multiplicity of intelligible objects or Ideas; and Soul, the potency that contemplates Mind and thereby extends by acting upon its own ideas into the realm of difference and indeterminacy, the location within which the cosmos takes shape as a determinate, physical form. Soul mediates between the intelligible world, the world of Mind, and the material world. Physical matter, at the furthest remove from the One, is the lowest form of existence, and is the eternally receptive substratum in and by which all determinate existents receive their discrete form. The universe is balanced between emanation, or movement outward from the One, and contemplation or return, movement back toward the One. The One itself is indescribable, beyond all thought and transcending all efforts to speak of it. The individual soul, by the practice of contemplation, can attain union with the One, but this involves a series of purifications and renunciations to detach the soul from matter, from images, from ideas, and finally from all discursive reason, until it is able to achieve a vision of the invisible and union with the One. The stages of contemplation are often pictured as ascents or steps away from the world of matter and toward the One, and the process itself is described as “apophatic,” literally, “speaking‐away,” that is, achieving an understanding of the One through negation—the One is not this, the One is not that—until every possible identification has been eliminated and the contemplative is left only witha void of thought in which the One can be indescribably experienced. This “apophatic” or negative way is contrasted with the affirmative, “kataphatic” way in which positive attributes are ascribed to the deity: God is good, loving, merciful, just, and so on.
The first major expression of mysticism within postbiblical Judaism can be found in the writings that make up the so‐called merkavah (“chariot”) or heikhalot (“palace”) corpus. These terms are used to designate those texts, composed and redacted over a period of several centuries, that describe in detail the ascent of an individual through the heavenly realms, culminating with an ecstatic vision of the luminous form on the throne located in the seventh palace of the seventh heaven. The details of a vision of the divine chariot were first recorded in the book of Ezekiel, a prophet living in Babylonia in the sixth century BCE. The first use of the technical term merkavah to refer to Ezekiel's vision of the enthroned glory is found in the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus 49.8 : “It was Ezekiel who saw the vision of glory, which God [lit. he] showed him above the chariot of the cherubim” (NRSV). While many of the themes in the biblical prophecy served as the exegetical basis for the visionary experiences elaborated in the Merkavah corpus, the essential difference between the prophetic theophany and mystical vision is evident. Closer to the spirit of the Merkavah works are remnants of heavenly ascents recorded in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature from the second century BCE to roughly the third century CE. It has been argued by some scholars that Merkavah mysticism is an outgrowth of Jewish apocalypticism, though some important differences are found as well. Another important link in this chain is the so‐called Angelic Liturgy of the Qumran sectarians, otherwise known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, as well as other liturgical fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. While there is some uncertainty regarding the appropriateness of the term “mystical” to refer to the poetic descriptions of the angelic realm and the throne contained in these documents, there can be little doubt that the motifs discussed in these sources bear a striking resemblance to the main concerns of the Heikhalot literature.
One work that specifically had a deep and lasting influence on the development of the mystical tradition is Sefer Yetzirah, Book of Formation, which is dated anywhere from the third to ninth centuries. Properly speaking, the work should not be described as a single composition but rather as a composite of distinct literary strands that have been woven together through a complicated redactional process whose stages are not clearly discernible. (The title is derived from the verb yatzar, “form,” in Gen. 2.7, 8, 19 .) According to Sefer Yetzirah, the creation of the world was based on the “thirty‐two paths of wisdom,” the ten numbers and twenty‐two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. According to one section in Sefer Yetzirah the sefirot (“ciphers” or numbers) are interpreted as the ten dimensions of the universe: north, south, east, west, up, down, beginning, end, good, evil. The individual letters of the alphabet each control various aspects of the creation, in the cosmos, in time, and in the body.
Sefer Yetzirah is a short work—less than 2,000 words—but it had great influence, especially because of commentaries on it, both scientific and mystical. Among those who wrote a scientific commentary on it was Saadia Gaon, in the 10th century (see the essay “Medieval Jewish Interpretation,” pp. 1876–1900). Later, in the 12th century, mystics would take up many of its ideas and develop them.
Another seminal work, of uncertain date, is Shiʿur Komah, a mystical writing that consists of a physical description of God as a being of immense size. Although later writers, particularly Maimonides, condemned the work because of its anthropomorphic treatment of God, its defenders maintained that it was not meant to be taken literally, but was rather trying to convey a sense of God's infinite majesty.
The Medieval PeriodBeginning in the 12th century, the kabbalistic movement grew within the Jewish communities in northern Spain and southern France, particularly in Provence. Kabbalah is a system of hidden or secret tradition that is seen as handing on from teacher to student the inner meaning of the biblical text. (The word “kabbalah” means “tradition.”) It is not strictly speaking a mystical tradition; rather it is an esoteric one, meaning by that a teaching that is intended for only a small group, and thus one that is difficult to understand and master. (The opposite of esoteric is exoteric, teaching intended for a general audience.) Nevertheless, since the goal of kabbalah involves achieving a contemplative vision of divine reality, and therefore a closer approach to God, it has many elements of mystical thought as well. Rather than seeking an ascent to the divine throne, as the earlier mystics of the heikhalot and merkavah schools did, the kabbalists are now concerned with discovering the hidden nature of the divine reflected in the meaning of sacred texts. Along with this emphasis, the activity too has changed: from the mystical praxis of visual ascent to esoteric hermeneutics or scriptural interpretation. This leads to an intensified concentration on the text, even on its individual words and letters, that is unique to Jewish mysticism.
An influential work that began to circulate in the late 12th century, Sefer ha‐Bahir or Book of Brightness, is generally regarded as the first work of kabbalistic symbolism. It bases itself partly on Sefer Yetzirah, in which the ten sefirot were seen as constitutive of the order of creation. In some sections of Sefer ha‐Bahir, these ten attributes are expressive of the divine pleroma or fullness: They are emanations of the divine nature, and are expressive of the balance and harmony within the divine being. God contains various attributes, even opposites; and God contains both male and female aspects. The female aspect is the shekhinah or “Presence” of God; this Presence is where the divine realm and creation meet, the “Gate of Heaven” that permits contact with God. God's fullness or completeness includes the union between masculine and feminine aspects.
The most influential mystical writing, however, is Sefer ha‐Zohar, Book of Splendor. This text, written largely in medieval Aramaic, purports to be biblical midrash from the 2nd century; it was actually written in the late 13th century, largely by Mosheh de Leon (d. 1305) and other kabbalists from the region in northern Spain known as Castile. It is therefore akin to an anthology, a collection of writings, rather than a work with a single author. The Zohar is presented as a mystical commentary on the Bible and fictional depictions of scenes from the life of the 2nd century Rabbi Shimeon bar Yoḥai and his disciples, whose discussions present the biblical interpretations. It also contains other material of a speculative nature.
The Zohar develops the idea of the sefirot or divine emanations into a full‐fledged presentation of the nature of God and creation, and the relationship between them. The mysterious Godhead, ʾEin Sof (“no end,” the infinite, unknowable divine being) manifests itself through the ten sefirot, the realms of the divine world. These are: Keter (“crown”), the unknowable Godhead; Η̣okhmah (“wisdom”), the first stirring of creation, primal Torah; Binah (“understanding”), creation's first form; Η̣esed (“benevolence,” “mercy,” “loving‐kindness”), divine love; Gevurah (“might”), the strength to control and punish; Tifʾeret (“beauty”), the balance of opposites; Netzaḥ (“victory”), God's loving action; Hod (“majesty”), God's judging action; Yesod (“foundation”), the divine principle within creation; and Malkhut (“sovereignty”), the link between God and creation that is also called Shekhinah (“presence”). An additional aspect of these realms is the differentiation amounting to opposition between the left side (Binah, Gevurah, Hod), God's judgment, and the right side (Η̣okhmah, Η̣esed, Netzaḥ), God's love. God descends through these realms until the final manifestation in the Shekhinah. This Presence of God, the feminineaspect of the divine being, is also the ideal representation in the divine realm of the people Israel. The differing aspects of God, as represented in the sefirot, must come into balance—for instance, Η̣esed and Gevurah must reconcile with each other—and when they do the feminine Shekhinah can be in harmony with the masculine, higher sefirot and the fullness of God pours out into the world.