The Mystic Heart of Judaism
By Miriam Bokser Caravella
Publisher: New Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2011. 599 pages.
In The Mystic Heart of Judaism, the author draws on her deep roots in Judaism to chronicle four millennia of Jewish life with a focus on the “primacy of the spiritual master as the teacher and transmitter of truth.” The author states that the purpose of this book is to “rediscover the spiritual masters of Jewish history whose teachings have brought inspiration and spiritual solace to generations of Jews.”
This historical survey begins with the patriarchs and prophets of the Bible and continues with the mystic masters recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the sages, rabbis, and messianic figures of antiquity. Moving into the medieval period, the author discusses philosophers, Jewish Sufis, and the pietists of Germany. The development of Kabbalah is discussed in detail, from its beginnings in twelfth-century Provence through its full flowering among sixteenth-century kabbalists gathered in Safed, a small mountaintop village in Palestine. The chronicle continues through several messianic figures of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries and the rise of the movement of Hasidism in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe. Throughout this long history, the author “presents the living teachers and their living teachings, their inner spiritual life with the divine, their relationship of love with their disciples.”
Notwithstanding the vast diversities of this four-thousand year period of Jewish history, a unifying theme of revelation and concealment, of a creative tension between that which is revealed and that which is concealed, permeates manifestations of Jewish mysticism. The author states:
The Hebrew word olam, meaning “world,” is thought to derive from the same root as the word “to conceal” (le-ha’alim). Mystics are those who, while living in the olam, see through its illusion of substance to the eternal, divine reality it conceals.
This idea that tangible phenomena conceal a subtle but truer reality was carried over into the approach to scripture. For example, when the Bible says that Moses went up the mountain, this statement has both a physical or revealed meaning and a spiritual or hidden meaning. The thirteenth-century mystic Abraham Abulafia wrote:
The ascent to the mountain is an allusion to spiritual ascent – that is, to prophecy, for Moses ascended to the mountain, and he also ascended to the divine level. That ascent is combined with a revealed matter, and with a matter which is hidden; the revealed is the ascent of the mountain, and the hidden is the level of prophecy.
The ever-present theme of revelation and concealment takes dramatic form in the immensely complex symbolism used by the mystics of the Kabbalah to express their insights. The author describes the kabbalists’ expression of mystic insight as
an elaborate interlinking set of symbols and metaphors with layer upon layer of meaning. Symbolism became the means of conveying several levels of reality at once. Each symbol is like a hypertext link to a multi-faceted reality concealed within a simple word or phrase.
The author notes that this “theme of concealment and revelation may also be found in the belief that there are true spiritual masters present among humanity, but they are disguised as ordinary persons.”
His [the tsadik’s or spiritual master’s] consciousness was in the physical as well as the spiritual realms, and thus his true spiritual nature was concealed by his physical body. One of the Habad hasidim said that the tsadik was “infinite substance garbed in flesh and blood.” By attaching oneself to such a master, individuals could ascend to the heights of divine experience.
Hasidic masters went so far in hiding themselves that even Ba’al Shem Tov, the great spiritual teacher who founded the Kabbalah movement, “concealed himself as an uneducated ignoramus.” For the author, the message of revelation and concealment holds out the promise
that all of us, who seem to be quite ordinary, are created in the image of God – that we, as we are, contain the potential for the greatest heights of spiritual achievement. Our soul is a spark, a particle of the divine essence, trapped in the physical world only temporarily, as we await liberation through the teachers he sends.
Other themes which the author finds running throughout the many-faceted history of Jewish mysticism include divine unity, divine language, and the mystic experience as inner journey. Divine unity is a foundational tenet of the Jewish religion. Abraham taught that there is one God. This is the central theme of the most important prayer in Judaism: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). For Jewish mystics the belief in one God has meant that there is a single spiritual reality that abides in and underlies everything. As Samuel ben Kalonymus of Germany wrote in the twelfth century:
Everything is in You
and You are in everything
You fill everything and You encompass it all;
When everything was created,
You were in everything;
Before everything was created,
You were everything.
A fascination with divine language runs throughout Jewish mysticism. God is said to have brought the creation into being by speaking. Jewish mystics came to see the divine language as “an unspoken ineffable essence.”
From the very beginning, Jewish mystics were engaged in meditation on the “name” or “word” of God … which gave them the experience of the ruah ha-kodesh (the holy spirit). They attest to being uplifted and enveloped by this power.
A variety of meditation practices developed using words, names or even unpronounceable combinations of letters.
Often the mystics would take particular names or passages from the Torah … and deconstruct them, creating more and more complex “names” of God that have no literal meaning, which they would repeat numerous times. By repeating these meaningless syllables, the mind would no longer focus on meanings; it could attach itself to the letters of the words as abstract symbols and, they believed, rise above the intellectual activity of the mind.
Jewish mystics commonly described inner mystical experience through the use of metaphor. Perhaps the most common metaphor is that of the chariot (merkavah), based on the biblical account of Elijah ascending to the heavens in a fiery chariot and on the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of a chariot ascending to the heavens with otherworldly lights, colours, and sounds. Many Jewish mystics described “travelling to spiritual realms in the chariot of the body, eventually reaching the throne region of God.” The author comments:
The experiences of these past mystics hint at a variety of practices through which they entered the hidden realms of spirituality. While their practices may have differed at different times and places, the record of their experiences points toward the universal reality they discovered beyond the physical olam – the ineffable revelation concealed within the realm of yesh [substance].
Summarizing this voluminous study of the vast depth and breadth of mystical experience within a single religion, the author offers her assessment of its import for readers of all backgrounds:
The reader is encouraged to continue searching for the truth that is concealed within the revealed – and ultimately to go beyond reading to first-hand experience of the divine… The challenge of the search is to find what we are looking for: the experience of the eternal name or word of God, the ruah ha-kodesh. It is possible.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.