Chapter 2: Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
The first thought I had when I read this passage from Scholem's classic is that this early mystic Jewish tradition occurred within the lifetime of Jesus, the apostle Paul, and later "church fathers", and some the writers during the era of the Gospels and Epistles could possibly have been influenced by such a tradition.
OK, I know you may think that's rather far fetched, but considering the "mystic" nature of John's Gospel as well as the imagery in Revelation, I don't think I'm reaching too far out of the bounds of credibility, particularly considering all (or most) of the early "documenters" of the teachings of the Jewish Messiah were Jewish themselves. Perhaps Yochanan ben Zakkai, who Scholem cites as one of "the most important representatives of mystical and theosophical thought" during the mid-first century era influenced some of the writings about Yeshua (Jesus) and his followers.
All of this, at least in terms of my very limited knowledge, is very thinly connected and anyone even marginally more familiar with the topic (which includes just about anyone familiar with Jewish mysticism) could blow away my arguments and suggestions with a mild sneeze. Still, it's rather compelling to take a look at these tentative connections and consider the possibilities.
Derek Leman, in his recent blog post Biblical Glimpses Into Mystical Horizons makes a few comparisons of his own:
EPISTLES: The one who ascended into the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12. The uniting of all things in Messiah in Ephesians 1. The one who descended into human form in Philippians 2. The God and Lord of 1 Corinthians 8. The Radiance of His Glory in Hebrews 1. The One in Whom All Things Adhere in Colossians 1 (and the Image of the Invisible God).Scholem writes:
Thus for example in the "Visions of Ezekiel", which have recently become known, Ezekiel sees the seven heavens with their seven Merkabahs (driven by four chayot or "living creatures"; Isaiah 6:2, Revelation 4:8) corresponding to the seven heavens is still innocent of any mention of Hekhaloth, or chambers, of the Merkabah.This references Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 1:4-26) and definitely recalls the scriptures Leman cites including:
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. -2 Corinthians 12:1-7Again, I can't say for certain nor to I assert as absolute, the connections I'm proposing here, but novice in mysticism that I am, it certainly sparks some interest. Still, Paul seems to be saying that he has accomplished what many mystics throughout the ages have attempted: a transition (in one form or another) into the realms outside of our own into those that approach the Throne of God...and he returned sane and whole.
I suppose you could just consider me a person who has gone off the deep end and that mysticism is a fool's errand. You wouldn't be alone. From Scholen's book:
If, finally, you were to ask me what kind of value I attach to Jewish mysticism, I would say this: Authoritative Jewish theology, both mediaeval and modern, in representatives like Saadia, Maimonides, and Hermann Cohen, has taken upon itself to task the formulating an antithesis to pantheism and mythical theology, i.e.: to prove them wrong.Here, we see some of the greatest luminaries among Jewish wisdom and intellectualism standing opposed against the Jewish mystic tradition. Nevertheless, Jewish mysticism has survived such attempts to be extinguished and endures into modern times in Kabbalah and Chasidic Judaism. It occurs to me that the philosophical vs. the mystical approach to God doesn't have to be either/or. They can both co-exist as different perspectives; perceiving God from radically different angles of observation (and participation). And then, there's this:
Levertoff believed that the Gospels and Chasidic Judaism merged seamlessly, and he dedicated his scholarship to demonstrating that conviction. He is said to have best developed his ideas in his major life work, a manuscript on the subject of Christ and the Shechinah. Unfortunately, the book was never published and the manuscript has been lost; however, he presented a lecture titled "The Shekinah Motif in the New Testament Literature" to the Society of the Study of Religions that we may assume represented something of an abstract of the larger work. This short paper provides a glimpse into a compelling and radical attempt to reconcile Jewish mysticism and faith in an exalted, divine Messiah.A rare but direct and living connection between the Chasidim, their mystic understanding of things, and the Gospel of John brought young Feivel Levertoff into discipleship under the great Rebbe Yeshua of Nazareth. He recognized the mystic in the Gospels and in the teachings of the Messiah. In fact, Levertoff thought it was impossible to understand the Jewish Messiah without a mystic understanding.
Commentary on Paul Philip Levertoff and
Love and the Messianic Age
Where does that leave those of us without that understanding? It leaves us at the doors to the libraries and maybe even the synagogues, daring to enter and striving to learn more.
Knowledge is beyond me; exalted, I am incapable of it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? And where can I flee from Your Presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; were I to take up wings of dawn, were I to dwell in the distant west, there, too Your hand would guide me, and Your right hand would grasp me. -Psalm 139:6-10
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.