Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
This is part of Scholem's struggle or "quest" to attempt to define mysticism in general and Jewish Mysticism in specific. It's also just a few pages into the first chapter of his classic tome on the latter and my first serious introduction to this topic.
Just about the only time I find free time to read most days is during my lunch hour from work. I walk ten minutes to my local public library, try to find a quiet corner where I'll be undisturbed, and begin to turn the pages and perform an elementary exploration into what most would consider "alien" worlds.
It's slow going.
The concept of mysticism is difficult to define, not because Scholem lacks the skills or understanding, but because the mystic is a difficult vision to relate, particularly as words on a page. It's like trying to describe a world to others that only you can see. It's as if you can peer into a fifth and sixth dimension and then labor to find a vocabulary to relate your perceptions to those of us who can only see in the mundane three-dimensions.
Perhaps it's not that bad, but it's not that easy either. Yet the need to describe the journey is as powerful as the drive to walk the mystic's path. And that drive comes from the need to walk beyond the four walls of ordinary existence and to somehow become involved in a realm where you can touch the hem of God's garment. It's the need to cross a fundamental gap that was built into the universe:
Man becomes aware of a fundamental duality, of a vast gulf which can be crossed by nothing but the voice; the voice of God, directing and law-giving in His revelation, and the voice of man in prayer. The great monotheistic religions live and unfold in the ever-present consciousness of this bipolarity, of the existence of an abyss which can never be bridged.When I read Scholem's words and tried to envision the abyss, another voice spoke up from a different direction:
“If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you.” -Friedrich NietzscheWhile I doubt that Nietzsche intended this expression to be used in the way I'm interpreting it, I sometimes wonder if the abyss he describes is the same one Scholem offers; staring into the abyss between man and God...and having the abyss finally stare back into you?
Is that the mystic's final goal, to be able to have an exchange with the abyss, or is it just the first step on a journey into a larger experience?
This leads us to a further consideration: it would be a mistake to assume that the whole of what we call mysticism is identical with that of personal experience which is realized in the state of ecstasy of ecstatic meditation. Mysticism, as an historical phenomonon, comprises much more than this experience, which lies at its root. There is a danger in relying too much on purely speculative definitions of the term...Herein lies an introduction to the danger of exploring the mystic; the assumption that whatever you experience personally and subjectively, must be a mystical encounter with God or His Spirit. I add that last part because I have heard so many times in traditional Christian circles of believers relating their encounters with "the Holy Spirit" and that, their internal, subjective, emotive states were interpreted as signs of what the Spirit wanted them to do.
As far as I could tell, the "signs" were telling many of these people to do what they wanted to do anyway, more's the pity.
There is no mysticism as such, there is only the mysticism of a particular religious system, Christian, Islamic, Jewish mysticism, and so on.So much for studying Kabbalah without the context of the Jewish faith.
Moreover, as Evelyn Underhill has rightly pointed out, the prevailing conception of the mystic as a religious anarchist who owes no allegiance to his religion finds little support in fact.
Above all, what encourages the emergence of mysticism in a situation in which these new impulses do not break through the shell of the old religious system and create a new one, but then to remain confined within its borders.
Apparently, there is no such thing as mysticism isolated and apart from an existing and recognized religious system, hence a study of "Jewish Mysticism" as opposed to "Christian Mysticism", "Islamic Mysticism", Greek Mysticism", and so forth. So Scholem, at least in this preliminary forage into locating a definition for his book's topic, presents a context for the mystic, in that he or she must remain within the boundaries of the larger religious organism, which for our purposes, is Judaism. But does the mystic always allow himself to be so contained?
It is hardly surprising that, hard as the mystic may try to remain within the confines of his religion, he often consciously or unconsciously approaches, or even transgresses, its limits.With the context defined, we see that the main danger to the person desiring to explore mysticism is the risk of crossing the borderland from the mystic to the heretic...and as you might imagine, that dividing line is quite thin and not very apparent at times.
The subject of Jewish Mysticism came up at a class I taught (about the Shabbat) last Wednesday evening and, as an amateur explorer and novice tourist amid the dark alleys and shadowy passageways of the mystic tradition, I couldn't do justice to the questions of some of my students. After all, I'm a mere student myself.
I recently had the advantage of reading and reviewing Paul Philip Levertoff's Chasidic/Messianic text Love and the Messianic Age and the accompanying commentary produced by First Fruits of Zion/Vine of David, so I was able to point the interested parties in that direction.
Beyond that, I'm starting to read Scholem's classic. I suspect it will take awhile, but on the other hand, I must take Scholem's advice to go slow, allow myself to remain grounded by my religious anchors, and cautiously enter into the outer limits of the abyss between man and God, seeking to dispel darkness with an unfamiliar illumination.
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.