Thursday, September 9, 2010

Kabbalah, Lurianic Mysticism

"The test of love is in how one relates not to saints and scholars but to rascals." -- A Passion for Truth by Abraham Joshua Heschel

The great Jewish American theologian, A. J. Heschel
writes in his book, A Passion for Truth at length about the origins and meaning of the mystical tradition within Judaism. Many today have discovered the ancient mystical traditions of Judaism; not having ever supposed that such a thing existed, they find this teaching enthralling. It is familiar to the Western mind; its practice extends into Christian mysticism, as Judaism is its parent. However, some have discovered the Kabbalah, divorced from its Judeo-Christian heritage and taken it as if a religion apart from the Biblical Judaism.

It is a spiritual practice well contained within the sphere of Judaism. It is not to be used as a talisman or a secret way for those who eschew its parent faith, the Judaism of ancient Israel. Reading the book of this great mind, Heschel, this becomes apparent. He writes, "indeed, it is difficult to comprehend his teaching without an adequate appreciation of Lurianic mysticism." A basic teaching of all denominations of Judaism and Christianity for that matter, is that 'Adonai echad!' The Lord is One! It is the faith of monotheism, a One, paternal Lord of all.

The greatness of the Rabbi, Isaac Ben Sholom Luria was his emphasis on not merely knowing the Way, but living the Way. "Under the impact of the Hasidic movement, Kabbalah, which had for centuries been studied in conventicles [a secret or unlawful religious meeting] and been understood by the initiated, now reached and affected the minds and lives of a vast multitude." The famous Rabbi of the Shetl, the Ba'al Shem Tov, according to historical tradition lived the life of this kind of Kabbalist. Heschel writes of him, "he often carried out acts of yihudim, spiritual concentration, 'mystical unification' within the sphere of the Divine, or meditations on the combination of spiritual names." He recommended and encouraged spiritual practices which previously had been carried out only by those initiates, advocating that the practice was for all, that every person could realize the divinity.

And there were those Rabbis who opposed this tradition in modernized form. "In contrast to classical Hassidism, the teachings of the dissenters, the rebbes of Pshyskhe and Kotzk, contain no vestige of Lurianic theology. Though there are no explicit declarations, there are many indications of a clear intent to remove Kabbalistic speculation from Hasidic concern." Rabbi Bunam's opposition to Kabbalah, for example, is exemplified in this comment to his disciples: "Ask a Kabbalist for the secret contained in the verse of the Shema [Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One!] in which two capital letters occur making up the word, 'witness.' According to the Law, the Shema may be recited in any language. But the letters would be different then, wouldn't they, and there would be no secret!"

Thus the "Holy Jew displayed an ironical
attitude" to the mysteries espoused by Kabbalah. Practices of all waking life were its subject: Sleeping, waking, bathing, eating and all of family life, in addition to work life, and life outside of the home, with regard to neighbors for example, were held within Kabbalistic concern. While some of the Rabbis of the early modern period were greatly immersed into these practices, and their followers as well, others were clearly impatient with this new form of mystical teaching. "However... [they] accepted the principle that the chief task of a tzaddik was to carry out yihudim in everything he undertook... though carried out by a mortal man in this world, it would affect the worlds on high."

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