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The word mystic or mysticism did not exist in the Hebrew lexicon until recently. The term mysticism, when applied to a Jewish religious phenomenon, is different from when used to denote a Christian one, because the Hebrew language does not have a term parallel in meaning to mysticism; nor is there in Jewish culture any concept which can be identified as equivalent to mysticism.1 Notwithstanding, the Jews have had deep and significant spiritual experiences, have developed an esoteric system, and have produced literature outlining its characteristics.
Judaism and the Jewish mystical tradition are separated from its Christian European counterparts by a radical difference in the basic conception of language.2 Hebrew, according to Jewish tradition is, in fact, the language of HaShem (G-d). In creating the world, HaShem used the Hebrew alphabet (alef bet) to bring the universe into existence. Judaism states it has recorded in its scriptures, the actual word of G-d in its original language.3
The Hebrew alef bet consists not only of sounds but also symbols and each of the letters have numerical values. They include vocalization marks, musical signs and “…other elements combine into the essence of language as a creative - rather than communicative - instrument.”4 Where Christians often take a fundamentalist literal stance on their exegesis of the Bible, in the Jewish tradition the scriptures have been open to interpretation. Once language is recognized as an aspect of infinite divine wisdom, it cannot have finite meaning.5 The plain meaning of the text may be readily discernible, but no one can grasp the true significance, from a divine standpoint, of the real, finite semantic message of any word of G-d.6 Hence, “exegesis is an infinite process, and no new discovery negates the previous one. Different, or even contradictory interpretations have equal validity….”7
Life of the Torah
Jewish mystical tradition is based on language, Hebrew; a land, Israel; and Torah. This encompasses more than mere belief or faith but an overarching system for living. The Torah is understood to be premundane or precede the creation, acts as a blueprint for the construction of the universe and the Children of Israel’s acceptance as the reason for its creation.8 Israel in effect, becomes the harbinger of G-d’s message to humanity and as such is socially constructed to be a nation of priest, prophets and kings as a “light unto the nations.”9
The Torah can refer to several texts, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the entire Hebrew Bible, or the entirety of the Hebrew canon, including the Mishnah and Talmud. For brevity’s sake the term will be used to encompass the entire Hebrew canon both written and oral.
Jewish mysticism operated within the framework of Torah. Its mystics lived in Jewish communities, attended synagogue, studied the Torah and were often renowned for their scholarship and expertise in Halakha (Jewish law).
Rabbinic Judaism is a system of mitzvot (commandments) and conformity to the mitzvot is a sign of love and obedience to HaShem.10 Jewish mystics, above all, remained true to ethics and morality as exemplified in Sefer ha-Shem (The Book of the Holy Name): “The name cannot be transmitted but to humble people who never act out of anger, those who constantly fear and worship God and perform His commandments.”11 Judaism, as a dynamic religious system, has evolved and adapted, but one aspect remains steadfast: mitzvot. The keeping of commandments has remained a Jewish tradition. The Christians, through a process called supersessionism, believe they have replaced Israel and its covenants with G-d and keeping the commandments is no longer necessary or expedient.
Jewish mystics continued to keep the commandments found in the Hebrew Bible as exemplified in the first commandment, “I am the OLRD thy God, who brought thee out of the land...