Originally published by the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (July-December 1977), pp. 450-2.
Louis Jacobs.—Jewish Mystical Testimonies. New York, Schocken Books, 1976; IX + 270 pages.
Jewish Mystical Testimonies is a collection of twenty-one mystical texts, arranged in chronological order. Each of them is preceded by a brief introductory note and followed by a series of learned endnotes. The very idea of an anthology of mystical texts is a novelty and many of these texts appear here for the first time translated by Jacobs while all appear for the first time in a setting with commentary. Another novelty in this book is the wide range of texts used, particularly the use of the 18th-20th century texts, an area in which Jacobs has done very fine research. In scholarly matters, Jacobs follows Scholem. The inclusion of Maimonides in a book of mystical texts, however, is new and certainly correct from a scholarly point of view.
The power and beauty of a book of mystical texts lies primarily in the texts themselves and Jewish Mystical Testimonies contains some breath-taking moments from the history of Jewish spirituality. Thus, for instance, there is the quotation from Abulafia which depicts the technique and soaring quality of Jewish mysticism (pp. 60-61): “Now the time has come to elevate you in the stages of love so that you become beloved on high and delightful here on earth. First, begin by combining the letters of the name YHWH. Gaze at all its combinations. Elevate it. Turn it over like a wheel which goes round and round, backwards and forwards like a scroll. [. . .] By means of these God will answer you when you call upon Him for you belong to His family”. There is also the description of the ecstasy of the High Priest taken from the Zohar where colors, incense, song, and purity are combined (pp. 82-83): “If the Priest was worthy that there should be rejoicing on high, then here below, too, there came forth an illumination, expressing acceptance, sweetened from the hills of pure balsam on high”. There is also the meditation on the vocalization and cantillation of the sacred text which serves as a point of departure for the mystic (pp. 89-96). And the visions and autobiographical notes reported by Hayyim Vital, the student of Issac Luria (e.g., that there was a pillar of fire above his head when he preached, p. 125). And the series of texts in the Magid tradition (chapters 10-12 and 15). And the covenant of the Bet El mystics (chapter 14). And the startling text from the 19th century (p. 241): “I saw a vision of light, a powerful radiance in the form of a virgin all adorned from whose person there came a dazzling light but I was not worthy to see the face”. Such passages, and many others, intimate the depth of experience present in the Jewish mystical tradition.
Jewish Mystical Testimonies, however, suffers from several severe methodological faults: First Jacobs, following Scholem, has arranged the material in chronological order. As a result the material falls upon the reader pell-mell, without any conceptual or typological analysis to serve as a frame of reference. Are there no “types” of Jewish mysticism? Are there no experiential, or conceptual, categories by which the material of this vast and rich tradition can be grouped, and grasped? Are there no “varieties” of Jewish mysticism which can be identified? Can, and ought, material from the moralistic, magical, speculative, homiletic, and manual traditions be mixed with a chronological spoon? This chronologizing of material is a basic fault for, although the historical concatenation of traditions must be honored, birds of a feather tend to flock together even in mystical traditions and therefore currents within the broader stream can, and must, be identified and explicated. (For an attempt of this type of grouping and commentative effort, cf. D. Blumenthal, Understanding Jewish Mysticism, The Library of Judaic Learning, ed. J. Neusner [Ktav, New York: forthcoming]).
Second, in commenting on mystical texts, it is necessary not only to explain the scholarly background to the texts, which Jacobs has done with the same fine sense with which he footnotes all his books, but also to point out the numinous element in the texts and to identify the methods used by the authors to attain an awareness of that which is truly mystical. Jacobs’ comments on the use of a mirror in the Judaism of late antiquity (p. 33), for example, are very learned and thorough but he has not explained the uncanny mixture of magic and mysticism that pervades all these texts. Or, the texts from Abulafia arc stunning but he has not explained sufficiently what a “permutation” is and how permutation can lead to trance states. Similarly, the numinous quality of the Zoharic symbol structure is not explicated though the symbols arc deciphered. This ability to expound and explicate the numinous is especially important when making the texts available in English for it is the bridge of the appreciation of the numinous which enables scholars of other mystical traditions to read, understand, and appreciate the Jewish mystical tradition. It is the numinous which universalizes the field.
Third, the lack of a concluding essay is a serious fault. No attempt is made to compare the various types, or stages, or periods of Jewish mysticism. No conclusions of any kind are drawn. One of Jacobs’ finest insights—that, at a certain point in time, mystical experience came to be viewed as a positive commandment within rabbinic Judaism (p. 4)—lies buried in the Introduction and is not given the systematic treatment it deserves. When was this point? How was it reached? Who was the authority for it? Was it for the masses or for the elite? There are other questions, too, that deserve to be raised, and answered. Jacobs’ vast erudition on the subject qualifies him to give good answers and a concluding essay would have provided the proper framework for such an effort.
There are some minor problems with the book, too: The relationship of the Ezekiel chapter to Jewish mysticism is not clear. Does Jacobs mean to present it as a mystical text? The chapters dealing with Jewish mysticism in late antiquity are very sparse and perhaps more should have been said about the Hellenistic parallels. There is a good bibliography but there should have been some indices. And, the chapter-head vignettes are fascinating but the cover could have been more inspired.
On the whole though, Jewish Mystical Testimonies is a welcome and much needed addition to the resources of the field of Jewish mysticism. Some of the texts are at last available in English and a certain scholarly frame of reference has been established. While this is not a book that one can sit and read, teachers and scholars will be able to use it selectively with profit.
David R. Blumenthal