How mys­ti­cism took us nearer to heaven

Si­mon Rocker talks an­gelic char­i­ots and hid­den spheres with Pro­fes­sor Rachel Elior, an author­ity on mys­ti­cism

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

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. 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 self­help 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 com- mu­nity, 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.”


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

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