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Jewish Mysticism & The Kabbalah

Three types of mysticism may be discerned in the history of Judaism: the ecstatic, the contemplative, and the esoteric (Agus). Though they are distinct types, in practice there are frequent overlapping and mixtures between them. The first type is characterized by the quest for God–or, more precisely, for access to a supernatural realm, which is itself still infinitely remote from the inaccessible deity–by means of ecstatic experiences; this method is sometimes tainted by theurgy.

The second follows the way of metaphysical meditation pushed to the limit, always bearing in its formulations the imprint of the cultural surroundings of the respective thinkers, who are exposed to influences from outside Judaism; this was the case with Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BCE-after 40 CE) and a few of the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, who drew their inspiration from Greco-Arabic Neoplatonism and sometimes also from Muslim mysticism.

The third type of mysticism claims an esoteric knowledge (hereafter called esoterism) that explores the divine life itself and its relationship to the divine level (the natural, finite realm) of being, a relationship that is subject to the law of correspondences (Agus). From this perspective, the divine is a symbol of the divine; that is, a reality that reveals another, superior reality, whence reciprocal action of the one on the other (which corresponds to it) exists.

This form of mysticism, akin to gnosis–the secret knowledge claimed by Gnosticism, a Hellenistic religious and philosophical movement–but purged, or almost purged, of the dualism that characterizes the latter, is what is commonly known as Kabbala (literally tradition) (Milligram). By extension, this term is also used to designate technical methods, used for highly diverse ends, ranging from the conditioning of the aspirant to ecstatic experiences to magical manipulations of a frankly superstitious character.

If the concept of spiritual energy acting on matter and at a distance originally underlay these practices, it finally became unrecognizable and all that remained was a collection of tricks of the trade. The favor with which the doctrine of correspondences was regarded by ancient and medieval science, as well as the tendency in the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to reconcile the results of rational reflection with the data of revelation, had the result of turning speculation on the origin and order of the universe toward mysticism (Guttman).

It must also be noted that the quest for God implies the search for solutions to problems that go beyond those of religion in the narrow sense and that arise even when there is no interest in the relationship between man and supernatural powers. Man ponders the problems of his origins, his destiny, his happiness, his suffering–questions that arise outside of religion, as well as within non mystical forms of religious life; the presence or absence of religious institutions or dogmas is of little importance when it comes to these questions (Guttman).

They were all formulated within non mystical Judaism and served as the basis and framework for the setting and solution of problems in the various forms of Jewish mysticism. This mysticism, especially in its Kabbalistic form, brought about profound transformations in the concepts of the world, God and last things (resurrection, last judgment, messianic kingdom, etc. ) set forth in biblical and rabbinical Judaism (Guttman).

Nevertheless, Jewish mysticism’s own set of problems about the origins of the universe and of man, of evil and sin, of the meaning of history, of the afterlife and the end of time is rooted in the very ground of Judaism and cannot be conceived outside of an exegesis of revealed Scripture and rabbinical tradition. The Kabbalah: Doorway to the Mind For millenia, aspects of the Kabbalah – the mystical offshoot of Judaism – have intimately addressed the nature of human consciousness and our relation to the divine.

Key Kabbalistic texts have for more than fifteen hundred years dealt with such intriguing topics as dreams meditation, altered states of awareness, the mind-body relationship, awakening intuition and prophetic qualities, and attaining spiritual ecstasy. Yet Jewish mystics have always emphasized the importance of the seemingly more mundane-but perhaps, even more challenging – task of creating a pathway to the Holy One through the very midst of everyday life and the myriad distractions that surround us (Agus).

It was the early Hasidic movement that really brought the esoteric wisdom of the Kabbalah into the crucial sphere of daily existence for all who were receptive. Founded by the charismatic, lay Jewish preacher and faith healer known as the Baal Shem Tov (Bearer of the Good Name), this movement arose with astonishing speed in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe (Neusner). The Baal Shem Tov preached that joy and bodily vigor are methods by which even the least schooled in formal spiritual practice can come closer to the deity.

To his other disciples, he also taught highly obstrusive, meditative techniques involving unification of the Hebrew letters through complex visualizations (Neusner). Interestingly, though, the Baal Shem Tov also instituted the practice of spiritual counseling between rebbe (spiritual master) and Hasid as a pivotal feature of the Hasidic way. What form did such spiritual counseling take? And how does it relate to us at the end of the twentieth century?

Especially with the new, emerging paradigm in Western psychology-with its humanistic and transpersonal perspective-Kabbalistic and Hasidic ideas and practices seem highly pertinent today. Indeed, a growing number of health care professionals – in fields now encompassing psychiatry and nursing, psychology and counseling – are utilizing classic Kabbalistic methods to help others achieve greater inner harmony and direction in life (Milligram).

For central to this ancient system of knowledge is the notion that we are each cloaked in physical form in order for our soul to carry out a unique mission for the Almighty. The better able we are to recognize-and then conduct-our specific mission on this earth, the more joyful and fulfilled our lives become (Foot). Jewish mystics have long taught that the lack of a sense of purpose or direction is a sure sign that we have somehow lost our way and need guidance to remember our personal tikkun (sphere of rectification/redemption) for our present existence.

Early Hasidic leaders like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov) utilized many different techniques to promote inner growth in their numerous followers. Such techniques were highly individualized in nature, and always designed to aid a particular man or woman in a particular period in his or her life, within the larger boundaries of historical period and surrounding culture (Foot).

Of course, some rebbes were renowned for practicing one or another form of spiritual counseling; such masterful specialists came to be known far and wide in the Hasidic world and Hasidim would journey many days for their annual spiritual counseling session. The specific techniques of the rebbes included dream-analysis, imaginal work, mental shock, storytelling, and directed advice often suggesting that the Hasid go to an unfamiliar town and there you will find an answer to your problem.

Oracular methods were also employed at times; these included Torah divination and soul-reading through the rebbe’s trance state (Agus). Recognizing acutely that each person dwells in a living social network that strongly affects his or her day-to-day life, the Hasidic founders made intense use of social forms of therapy or counseling to initiate momentum for growth in the Hasid seeking change within. In my own practice as a psychologist, I have found the Kabbalistic emphasis on storytelling and on training the Higher Will to be quite effective in helping people to find their pathway to divine purpose (Montefiore).

For centuries, too, Jewish mystics have prized the right use of imagination as a tremendously powerful force that can guide us through the vicissitudes of life. I therefore incorporate meditative techniques developing the Higher Will as well as the imagination, often adapting passages from age-old Kabbalistic works for this goal. Above all, the Kabbalah provides me with a comprehensive framework for placing a person’s problems or challenges within a broader spiritual perspective (Montefiore).

The inspiring words of the thirteenth-century Zohar (Book of Splendor) say it well: When the whole of man had been duly shaped with all its members, God associated Himself with him and put a holy soul into him . . so that he might attain his full perfection. Hence, while the holy soul is still within man’s body, it is incumbent upon him to multiply the image of the King in the world. There is in this an esoteric thought involved, the Zohar adds, namely, that just as the celestial stream flows on forever without ceasing, so man must see that his own river shall not cease in the world.

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