Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalah, has been popularized as a New Age, hippie trend, thanks in part to celebrities like Madonna and Britney Spears. However, its roots are nearly as ancient as Jewish practice itself. Dating back to the Second Temple of Jerusalem between 536 BCE and 70 CE, mysticism is a practice that seeks to understand divinity, achieve union with God, and enter into divine realms or dimensions. The ancient prophets recorded in the Torah engaged in mysticism when they were given visions of the future, often directly from God himself. At the same time, many practitioners of Kabbalah teach that God is impossible to know fully, but righteous living can allow for divine influences to flow throughout the world.
An exact definition of mysticism is difficult to pin down, as are the beliefs and practices of other known mystics, but the common thread of the following five mystics is a belief that divine influence is threaded in the fabric of humanity, and that bodies are unable to function without souls.
Rabbi Akiva (50-137 CE) of Jerusalem is arguably one of Judaism’s most beloved rabbis and scholars. Illiterate and poor for most of his life, he was encouraged by his wife to study and teach Torah by the time he entered his forties. Much of his life is shrouded in legend, such as one Tannaitic tradition that he was one of only four sages to enter Paradise and return unscathed, but his legacy is marked with an emphasis on mankind working in partnership with the divine. Akiva taught that God provided the materials necessary for survival, but that humans must sow and harvest those resources. He taught that the two main attributes of God were mercy and justice, and that the pious would be punished for their few sins in this life so that they may only be rewarded in the afterlife, while the wicked reaped the benefits of their conquests on earth and faced punishment in the afterlife. His philosophies conflicted with those of the Roman Empire, and he was eventually martyred for his beliefs.
Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), more commonly known as Maimonides, was a prolific Torah scholar and physician whose writings are still popular among Jews today. Born on the eve of Passover in Spain, his 14-volume Mishneh Torah earned canonical authority as an extension of Talmudic law. He was not known in his lifetime as a mystic, yet mystical characteristics peppered his religious philosophies: meditation was a requirement of all individuals seeking a complete spiritual state, and all men have equal potential to become prophets. He was unusual for his time in that he saw no contradiction between science and religion.
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the author of several books on Jewish philosophy. It is widely believed that he had greater interest in spirituality than critical text study, and thus was denied a graduate assistantship for many years. A central view of Hechsel’s theology was the idea that God possessed human feelings, and that God sought after humanity rather than the other way around. The purpose of prophets was not to speak for God so much as remind humanity of God’s compassion for the poor and marginalized. Heschel wrote that no single religion could claim a monopoly on the truth, and that spiritual sparks were present in all humans, not just Jews. His aim when writing was to shock readers out of “spiritual complacency” and awaken them to deeper levels of consciousness.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), commonly called “Reb Zalman,” was a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and active participant in interfaith dialogue. Born in Poland and raised in Austria, Zalman fled the Nazis and came to the United States in 1941, where he was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 1947. He is believed to have published the first English book on Jewish meditation, and experienced a spiritual shift while studying at Boston University. He believed that even actions considered sinful in many religious circles could be part of God’s master plan, incorporated meditation and spontaneous dancing in his services, and believed that art and music were integral to spiritual formation. As such, some critics denounced his views as being too “out there” and more pantheistic than monotheistic: that divinity and reality are identical.
Lawrence Kushner (1943-) is a Reform rabbi and teacher of mysticism at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. His 1975 publication, The Book of Letters, earned him a position as one of Judaism’s greatest modern spiritual practitioners. Kushner believes that all humans are spiritual without necessarily realizing it: we are all playing important roles in a sacred spiritual drama of sorts. His Kabbalistic practice includes beliefs that Kabbalah is the most sophisticated way of practicing Judaism, and that everything in the world is connected somehow, though a belief in God or a supernatural being is not necessary to be part of a holy practice. In fact, Kushner believes that doubting the existence of spiritual beings from time to time is a necessary part of maintaining a mature spiritual practice, and that holiness is constantly guiding and unfolding various aspects of human life.
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