Originally published in the Journal of Religion 59:2 (1979), pp. 253-4.
Jacobs, Louis. Jewish Mystical Testimonies. New York: Schocken Books, 1978. 270 pp. $7.95 (paper).
Jewish mystics are famous—or notorious—for their reticence in speaking directly about inner experience. A mystical literature that chooses to express itself almost exclusively in speculative terms must be a source of great frustration for those who seek easy access to descriptions of trance or rapture. No less is it a source of puzzlement to many who approach it with preconceived definitions of mysticsm in mind or who try to fit it into a curriculum in which representatives of each great mystical tradition are brought forth to speak in more-or-less parallel fashion. The uniqueness of Kabbalah among mysticisms is first seen in the refusal of its adherents to offer testimonial.
It was inevitable, in the wake of both scholarship and popular interest in the subject, that someone should comb the vast literature of Jewish mysticism to excerpt those passages which are exceptions to the rule. It is the Kabbalists’ good fortune that Louis Jacobs was the one to do the job. His selection is responsible, comprehensive, and well translated. He has tried, with considerable but not uniform success, to choose passages which not only offer personal testimony of religious experience, but which also describe that experience in a language relatively accessible to the contemporary reader. There are a few passages—that from the fourteenth-century Berit Menuhah is the best example—where one wonders what an uninitiated student could ever make of it, but a certain amount of this is inevitable in an anthology representing some of the most abstruse symbolic configurations ever conceived. One may also argue with the choices here and there: medieval German Hasidism might have been better represented than by the mostly moralizing passage from Eleazar of Worms. Certain figures are noticeable by their absence: Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is surprisingly missed (his dreams would have provided a fascinating parallel to those of Vital!); the Sabbatians here remain unfortunately under the ban; and the various mystical poets, heretical and otherwise, who flourished from the sixteenth century onward are nowhere to be seen. But all of these are relatively small disagreements. The major streams of Jewish mystical experience, ranging from the prophet Ezekiel, through the merkavah visionaries, the thirteenth-century Spanish Kabbalists, the Safed mystical revival, and both the Hasidic and anti-Hasidic pieties of the eighteenth century are all well represented in this volume.
The more interesting question to explore is that of the reticence itself, and whether there may not be a good bit more “testimonial” material to be found in this literature for the one who has learned how to translate its symbols back from theosophical speculation into inner experience. Scholem’s explanation of the literature’s shyness in this regard has to do with the Jewish sense of transcendence: “Jews retained a particularly vivid sense of the incongruity between mystical experience and the idea of God which stresses the aspects of Creator King and Law-giver.” Jacobs in his introduction adds another wrinkle to this, suggesting that because there was no religious merit in vision or ecstasy (i.e., religious experience was not a mizwah), no one bothered to seek it or record it. This latter explanation seems to be inadequate, and I would suggest that it was the Jewish view of man, rather than of God, which is to account for the mystics’ shyness. Humility is one of the great virtues for every Jewish moralist. It would not have been considered properly humble for a Jew to claim that he had seen God or been transported through the seven heavens: it certainly would have taken a lot for him to overcome the sense of terrible audacity about making such a claim. Rabbinic Judaism raised its sons and daughters to believe neither that they were utterly sinful and depraved nor to dream that they were gods or angels. “The heavens are the heavens of God and the earth hath He given to the children of Adam.” Better not to seek that which goes beyond this earth.
If any human might transcend that radical break between earth and heaven, the latter-day aspirant would do better to hide behind the mantle of a Moses or an Akiba than make the claim for himself. Herein lies the root of the widespread pseudepigraphic activity which characterizes this tradition, a tendency that may be even more widespread than is generally recognized. Herein too lies my one more serious reservation concerning Jacob’s current undertaking. There are countless passages in the medieval Kabbalistic literature, most particularly in the Zohar, which describe the ascent of Moses among the sefirot or the encounters of Abraham with the “grades of faith.” These passages too are a sort of testimony, perhaps the more characteristic testimony form of Jewish mystical writings. Many are written in near-ecstatic fashion, again especially within the Zohar itself. It seems unfortunate that the first-person principle was so rigorously applied in the selection of materials as to rule out many potentially interesting and valuable sources.
Purists will of course raise further objections to this volume. They will claim, with some right, that passages taken out of context are misleading, and that if the student is given just this utterly uncharacteristic selection from the tradition he will be misled. Jacobs undoubtedly has, to say it as would the Kabbalists, raided the treasure house of the king. Those of us who teach and look for useful and intelligent materials are grateful that he has done so.
Arthur Green, University of Pennsylvania.