How mysticism took us nearer to heaven


Professor Rachel Elior, an authority on mysticism, talks of angelic chariots and hidden spheres

Today’s festival of Lag ba’Omer has a special place in the heart of mystics. It is the day when the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is said to have begun illuminating the secrets of the Zohar, the “bible” of Kabbalah, and the day considered the anniversary of his death. Tens of thousands will have marked the occasion by flocking to his tomb in Meron, Northern Israel.

Israelis celebrating Lag ba'Omer clamber on top of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

In recent years, Jewish mysticism has enjoyed an extraordinary surge of interest, thanks partly to the arrival of pop Kabbalah as a branch of the self-help industry. But others have been inspired to look beyond the red-string chic and try to find out more about the authentic tradition. And whether you are an aspiring mystic or not, there is no one better to explain its importance than Rachel Elior.

The John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought at the Hebrew University has proved herself a crowd-puller at Limmud conferences or Jewish Book Week. Her lucidity and ardour for her subject make her an ideal guide to the most difficult works in the library of Judaism.

The mystical enterprise, she explains, was a response to catastrophe, a creative attempt to construct an alternative reality in dark times. “For me, Jewish history is a chapter in the history of freedom,” she says. “It’s about the human effort to strive for freedom when freedom was not available in the existential arena.”

There are two main streams of mysticism, firstly the “chariot mysticism” originating in the prophecies of Ezekiel more than 2,500 years ago at the time of the destruction of the First Temple. The throne of cherubim from the ruined Temple became the angelic chariot of the prophet’s famous vision. “Ezekiel said he had been shown a vision of the heavenly chariot in order to demonstrate the fact that while the earthly Temple was razed to the ground, the heavenly Temple is eternally functioning,” she says. 

Such mystical writings became a source of hope, bearing the promise of Messianic redemption. “Jewish mysticism is about defying the constraint of reality,” she says. “Thus when the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, the Jewish mystics said that its destruction marks the birth of the Messiah. Instead of focusing on the death, the catastrophe and tragedy, immediately they throw an anchor to the future. The Messiah is not only a person, it’s like a way of thinking, an alternative reality. The messianic era means retrieving normal life: Jewish sovereignty, having unity of the Jews who were spread all over the world.”

The second chapter of Jewish mysticism came later with the Kabbalah, which like most academics she attributes to medieval Europe rather than the early Talmudic period of Shimon bar Yochai.

“The authors of the Kabbalah were working in Spain in the 13th century right at the end of the Crusades,” she says. “Spain was the only central Jewish community in Europe that had not been harmed terribly by the Crusades. The French Jewish community, the German Jewish community were massacred, but the Spanish community was left relatively unharmed. While they were witnessing the demise of the Jewish community in Europe, they [saw] the need to create a new way of thinking that would secure the continuity of Jewish life.”

They took a cryptic line from the early mystical text, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation” (third to sixth century), that the world was created according to “32 paths of wisdom— 10 infinite numbers and 22 mysterious letters”. For the Kabbalists, the numbers (sefirot in Hebrew) meant divine spheres.

“The Kabbalists of Spain adopted this mysterious verse of the Sefer Yetzirah suggesting the divine creation is based on language and started to work with it. They claimed that beyond any literal level of understanding of Scriptures there are hidden layers pertaining to the hidden world in heaven.

“They said there are 10 spheres — each one has a name, adjectives pertaining to God. In fact, it only reflects what people are yearning for — Kingdom, Charity, Mercy, Glory… Each one of the words of the Torah is connected to one of the 10 spheres.”

More than this, through the very act of writing and study, they believed they could inaugurate the messianic process. The literary creativity of the Kabbalists over the next centuries enabled them to rise above an often grim reality and project a world “illuminated by beauty and hope”, she says.  “For them, creative writing was the only arena of freedom open to them. They were not free to dress as they want, or work in what they wanted, or to be equal members in any society. The only place open to them to express their yearnings, their desires, their beliefs, their inner intellectual concerns, was within the mystical literature.”

Today, conditions are no longer ripe for mystical writing, with the state of Israel revived and most diaspora Jews living in free societies. But there is one exception: the Lubavitch Chasidim. “If the state of Israel had not been established,” she says, “I assure you that there would be volumes and volumes of mystical writing. The one group in Judaism that did not acknowledge the establishment of the state of Israel is Chabad-Lubavitch and they are the only mystically inspired writers and messianic writers in the 20th century in a significant way.”

During the Holocaust, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe announced that it was “not what it seemed… He said to his followers, don’t despair, those torments of birth-pangs that we see as the Holocaust are going in turn to bring the birth of a new reality.”

But in her view: “We’re much better to enjoy the messianic era where the Jewish people do have a state, and communities of Jews living all over the world in equal terms and peaceful existence, and not to produce mystical writing — rather than the opposite.”

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