Originally published in Midstream, August-September 1979.
Jewish Mystical Testimonies, edited by Louis Jacobs. Schocken, New York. 270 pp.
The past half century has seen a tremendous explosion of interest in the subject of Jewish mysticism. If one compares, for example, the few articles on Kabbalah (the generally used term for Jewish mysticism) in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia to the detailed coverage in the recent Encyclopedia Judaica, the current scholarly fascination becomes apparent.
The overwhelming inclination toward rationalism in 19th century historians like Graetz represented the Kabbalistic enterprise as peripheral to “mainstream” Judaism. Even as recently as 1956, Professor Abraham Halkin could devote a mere two pages to Kabbalah in his survey of the “Judeo-Islamic Age” for Schwartz’s anthology Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People. But through the pioneering scholarship of Gershom Scholem and his students and the later popular interest in mysticism—both East and West—witnessed in the 1960s, such an oversight would be inconceivable today. Jewish mysticism both for the academicians and for the general reader is a live topic.
The new interest, as might be expected, has been a mixed blessing. Shoddy popularization and faddism have sprung up alongside serious scholarship. But the dominant result has been positive. Scholem himself has long argued that mysticism was no fringe movement in Judaism, but was formed and sustained centrally by “the learned Talmudic aristocracy and not some nameless groups of doubtful orthodoxy . . . with meagre claims to learning.” Mysticism was a crucial aspect of the tradition, not an oddity. Jewish mysticism, long the poor stepsister, has now been recognized as a central pillar in the history of Jewish thought.
Modern research into mysticism has revealed a curious aspect of the Kabbalistic tradition. As Scholem has pointed out, Jewish mysticism has an unfortunate dearth of personal testimonies describing actual mystical experiences. Unlike the Christian mystics, Jews have tended to express their own experiences much more reluctantly and in far more esoteric documents. “The Kabbalists,” Scholem writes, “are no friends of mystical autobiography.”
The difficulty in finding such confessions was one reason that historians tended to belittle the significance of the Kabbalistic tradition. But despite their rarity, the texts do exist. And any contact with such sources will dispel the notion that ecstatic experience is alien to Jewish religiosity.
A recent book in English has finally made a number of these documents available to the general reader. Professor Louis Jacobs, a British scholar who has written on a wide range of Jewish topics, has collected and translated a series of original texts in a volume entitled Jewish Mystical Testimonies. Jacobs has steered clear here of Kabbalistic theological systems and has focused as far as it is possible on the personal side of Jewish mysticism. What is the nature of the mystic’s actual experience? How does he perceive the “mystical ascent”? The ecstatic contemplation of the divine?
The book is arranged historically taking the reader from Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly throne in the Bible through medieval Kabbalah and via Hasidism into the 20th century. Each text is preceded by a short introduction that sets the background of the testimony and is followed by explanatory notes.
The only disappointment in this book is the brevity of Jacobs’s commentaries. We would like to hear more about the conceptual background of ideas in the texts, and the book’s bibliography could have been a much more useful guide for further study had it been expanded and simply annotated.
But the emphasis Jacobs has chosen is on the texts themselves, and the choices he has made are perceptive and admirable. Some of the texts, such as the Talmudic passage about the four who entered pardas, the King’s orchard, are basic and predictable; but Jacobs has also provided a few unexpected and delightful surprises. For example, the mystical experiences of the Gaon of Vilna, often incorrectly perceived as a pure rationalist and legalist, make up as emotional a text as the Baal Shem Tov’s mystical epistle: both documents are printed in the anthology. Likewise we can read Maimonides’s intellectual mysticism alongside of the poetic ecstasy of Moses Hayim Luzzatto. Joseph Karo, 16th century author of the great legal code Shulhan Arukh, believed that he was in contact with an angelic heavenly mentor who communicated directly through him. Jacobs provides a fascinating excerpt from Karo’s mystical diary.
The chronological arrangement of the texts and the introductions—which though too short are nonetheless intelligent and useful—make the book ideal as a kind of introduction for the general reader to the whole mystical tradition in Judaism. Read alongside of Scholem’s great inquiry Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Jewish Mystical Testimonies becomes an even richer mine. The texts in the Jacobs book neatly complement Scholem’s exposition.
Both the beginner who wishes to explore and the experienced student who appreciates nuances will welcome Jewish Mystical Testimonies.
BARRY W. HOLTZ, Chairman of Publications at the Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the coauthor of Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.