Source: Examiner, 6-25-09
The Jewish mystical tradition has been around for 3500 years, beginning with the Biblical account of Moses at the Burning Bush. Elijah described it as a “gentle whisper.” Ezekiel saw a vision of “a wheel within a wheel,” and Zechariah had eight visions, including one with a “flying scroll.” Prophets continued this tradition, hearing and speaking the Voice of God.
During the Babylonian Captivity (621 B.C.E. – c. 551 B.C.E.), some Jews practiced “Throne” or “Chariot mysticism,” influenced by the mystics and magi of Chaldea. These seers perceived images of Adonai sitting on a throne shaped like a chariot – which is consistent with architecture from the Fertile Crescent of that time.
During Hellenistic times, the Sibylline Oracle influenced Jewish mysticism. The “Jewish Sibyl,” as U.C. Berkeley professor, Erich Gruen, has called her, would have readers believe that her prophecies (Book III) were about Jews and perhaps foreseeing the Roman world. One prophecy was that there would be Jewish senators (in Rome?), and that a woman (Cleopatra?) would rule the world. Gruen argues that it is more likely that an innovative Judean composed this part of the Oracle so as to conform to visionary insight consistent with the Greco-Roman supernatural world.
In the Middle Ages, a Castillian, Moses de Leon, wove a new and important strand of the Jewish mystical tradition: Kabbalah. Historical Kabbalah is based on, or associated with, the Book of Zohar. Zohar means “the splendor,” and was probably written or compiled by de Leon in the 1280s. Kabbalah has become a catch-all name for the entire Jewish mystical tradition. Scholars differ on the origin of the term, it’s ful meaning, and historic use.
The theme of the Zohar is how to explain the nature of evil; the book was probably written in response to a pogram executed by the King’s son. Evil is explained to be the result of “din,” a sphere in the mystical Tree of Life that corresponds to God’s attribute of justice. According to the Zohar, din, also called the “left hand of God,” sometimes goes wild. At these times, God’s Judgement is manifest in the world as an extreme expression of Divine Justice. It is released in response to causes (like a specific sin in the community) that perhaps only He knows.
Other kinds of Jewish mysticism are also often called Kabbalah, including the kind practiced by medieval German Jewish pietists, and by Hasidic Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the 17 th and 18th centuries. The Hollywood version, popular today, is a corruption of the rich historical tradition of Jewish mysticism. Be aware that not everything called Kabbalah now is directly related to the original teachings of Spanish Jewish mystics in Castile and Barcelona.
One significance of the Jewish mystical tradition, which began with the Biblical prophets, is that it is rich, diverse, and that many people contributed to it. Also, it has cultural antecedents from different geographic areas. The gematria part, which focuses on the meaning of words based on the number-value of letters, originated in Babylonia. Kabbalah also influenced Renaissance-era Christian Hebraists such as Pico della Mirandola.
Understand, however, that for the Jews who experienced millennia of dispersion, mysticism provided both a specialized way to know the King of the Universe, and a means to overcome grief that accompanied perpetual persecution and the threat of identity-loss.
FOR MORE INFO: Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem (New York: Schocken Books, 1946, 1995), especially 206-237.
The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences edited by Joseph Dan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
“Jews, Greeks, and Romans in the Third Sibylline Oracle,” by Erich S. Gruen, in Jews in a Greco-Roman World, ed. Martin Goodman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 2004), 15-36.
PHOTO CREDIT: Path leading to rock circle, Golden Gate Park. (R.A. Siegel photo, 2009)