In Kabbalah, the Law of the Torah (Torah literally means Law; in this instance it refers to the five books of Moses, included in the Old Testament) becomes a symbol of cosmic law, and the history of the Jewish people a symbol of the cosmic process.
Kabbalists attempt to penetrate and describe the mystery of the world as a reflection of the mysteries of divine life. This is the path of the mystic. The mystic's message, by nature, is indistinct and inarticulate; therefore it is cloaked in symbology (versus a prophet's message, which is clear and specific).
Symbols are a means of expressing an experience that in itself is expressionless. The main function of religious symbols is to preserve the vitality of religious experience in a traditional, conservative milieu. The mystic who lends new symbolic meaning to holy texts, to the doctrines and ritual of his or her religion, discovers a new depth, a new dimension in their own tradition. The mystic attempts to confirm religious authority, but through new interpretations, actually transforms it. The symbolism is the instrument of transformation.
Although mystics start by trying to work within the framework of the community, sometimes the mystical experience leads to a split from traditions. The following were new "religions" motivated by mystical symbology that was unable to be absorbed by the primary tradition: Antabaptists, Quakers, Sabbatian, Hasidic, Sufi, Mahayana Buddhism. Usually, these sects arise from historical circumstances and not from the personality or experience of the mystic.
The history of Quietist mysticism, a 17th-century devotional and mystical movement within the Catholic church in Christianity demonstrates this. The movement held that the path to the discovery of the Divine Will required one to "sell or kill" their self-conscious will. One's whole soul might thus be directed to the love of God. "Waiting on God" through meditation became central. A Quietist maxim held that one moment's contemplation was worth a thousand years' good works. It was not the doctrines of Quietism as originally formulated by its representatives in the Spanish church that changed when Madam Guyon (a French mystic writer and the center of the Quietist movement) was condemned for five years in the Bastille for heresy. What had changed was the historical situation; she had deserted her family and lost favor with ladies at the French court. Here one of the most dramatic conflicts in the history of the Church shows how such a struggle can arise against the will of leading participants, if a historical situation that has no bearing whatsoever on mystical doctrines makes it seem desirable.
The history of the Hasidic movement also is an example. When Israel Baal-Shem Tov, the 18th c founder of Polish Hasidism, put forward the mystical thesis that communion with God (devekuth) is more important than the study of books, it aroused considerable opposition and was cited in all the anti-Hasidic polemics as proof of the movement's subversive and anti-Rabbinical tendencies. The same theory had been advanced two hundred years before by a no lesser mystical authority, Isaac Luria in Safed, without arousing the slightest antagonism. It was not the thesis that had changed, but the historic climate.
Only in Nihilistic mysticism do mystical doctrines imply conflict with traditional religious authority. This is because this mystical experience is translated into symbology implying the negation of all authority. The experience does not lead to the conclusion of the harmonious life of all things in bond with God, a world ordered by divine law and submissive to its authority. The Nihilistic view, is the redemption of life is fettered by no law or authority; it never ceases to produce forms and destroy what it has produced. If one passes through all embodiments and forms, committing to none, one can reach the ultimate: nonexistence, absolute nothingness.
Although mystics tend to try to work within the framework of their traditional religious concepts, religious authorities usually do their best to place obstacles in the path of the mystic. They give him or her no encouragement, and if in the end the obstacles frighten the mystic and bring him or her back to the old accustomed ways, so much the better from the standpoint of authority.
All great institutional religions have shown a marked distaste for lay mystics, the unlearned mystics who, fired by the intensity of their experience, believe they can dispense with the traditional and approved channels of religious life. The less educated the candidate for mystical illumination, the less he or she knew of theology, and the greater the danger of a conflict with authority. Quite regardless of specific content, all manuals of mysticism written from the standpoint of traditional authority illustrate this point. The Jewish authorities tried to avoid conflicts by restricting the right to engage in mystical practice to fully trained Talmudic scholars. All Kabbalistic manuals quote Maimonides' warning: "No one is worthy to enter Paradise (the realm of mysticism) who has not first taken his fill of bread and meat (the common fare of sober Rabbinical learning)."
Such warnings have not been very effective. The history of the great religions abound in lay mysticism and movements growing out of it. In the history of Christianity, mysticism is exemplified by such movements as the Gnostics, the Brethren of Free Spirit, the Spanish Alumbrados, and the Protestant sects of the last four centuries. The Church branded all such movements as heresies. The founder of Polish Hasidism, Israel Baal-Shem, had no teacher of flesh and blood; the only spiritual guide he ever alluded to was the Prophet Alijah of Shiloh, with whom he was in constant visionary and spiritual contact. He was a pure lay mystic, and lay mysticism was a vital factor in the development of the movement he founded.
In monotheistic religions, the religious authorities had another method of avoiding religious conflicts with the mystics of the community. This was to charge them with social responsibility. They put pressure on the mystics to mingle with the simple folk, to participate in their activities, instead of remaining among themselves in communities of the "enlightened." In Christianity, where since the beginnings of monasticism, mystics have always been able to band together, this trend has not always been as clear as in Judaism. Since Talmudic times there has been decided disinclination to let mystics organize communities of their own (which is why the Essene community was so separate). Time and time again the rabbis insisted that the mystical experience, the love of God, must be confirmed by activity in the human community, that it was not enough for an individual to pour out his soul to God. This has been a highly effective method of "taming" mystics and holding them within the bounds imposed by traditional authority.
The following example of Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism (Hasidic) and how it restructures the context of sacred texts throws a light on the inherent problem between religious authority and mysticism.
Concerning the text of the revelation given to Israel on Mount Sinai, which is a sharply defined set of doctrines and a summons to the human community, the question arises from the mystical perspective: What is the truly divine element in this revelation? In the Talmud (approved canon) the answer is: When the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments, what could they hear, and what did they hear? Some maintained that all the Commandments were spoken to the children of Israel directly by divine voice. Others said that only the first two Commandments: "I am the Lord thy God" and "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3) were communicated directly. Then the people were overwhelmed; they could no longer endure the divine voice. Thus they had been obliged to receive the remaining Commandments through Moses. Moses alone was able to withstand the divine voice, and it was he who repeated in a human voice those statements of supreme authority that are the Ten Commandments.
This conception of Moses as interpreter of the divine voice for the people was developed much more radically by Maimonides (12th century Kabbalist) whose ideas Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov (19th century Hasidic Kabbalist), carried to their ultimate conclusion. In Rabbi Mendel's view, not even the first two Commandments were revealed directly to the whole people of Israel. All that Israel heard was the aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first Commandment begins, the aleph of the word anokhi, "I." In Hebrew the consonant aleph represents nothing more than the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. Thus the aleph is said to denote the source of all articulate sound; is the spiritual root of all other letters; encompasses in its essence the whole alphabet and hence all other elements of human discourse. To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. Thus with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning. In order to become a foundation of religious authority, it had to be translated into human language, and that is what Moses did. In this light, every statement on which authority is grounded would become a human interpretation of something that transcends it. Once in history a mystical experience was imparted to a whole nation and formed a bond between that nation and God. But the truly divine element in this revelation, the immense aleph, was not in itself sufficient to express the divine message, and in itself it was more than the community could bear. Only the prophet was empowered to communicate the meaning of this inarticulate voice to the community. It is mystical experience which conceives and gives birth to religious authority.
1. The principle of the Divine Name
2. The principle of the Torah as an organism
3. The principle of the infinite meaning of the divine word
The following famous passage from the Zohar poetically and allegorically describes the approach and the path of the Judeo-Christian mystical Kabbalist:
"Verily the Torah lets out a word
(sound) and emerges a little from her sheath, and then hides herself again.
But she does this only for those who know and obey her. For the Torah resembles
a beautiful and stately damsel, who is hidden in a secluded chamber of
her palace and who has a secret lover unknown to all others. For love of
her, he keeps passing the gate of her house, looking this way and that
in search of her. She knows that her lover haunts the gate of her house.
What does she do? She opens the door of her hidden chamber, ever so little,
and for a moment reveals her face to her lover, but hides it again forthwith.
Were anyone with her lover, he would see nothing and perceive nothing.
He alone sees it and is drawn to her with his heart and soul and his whole
being, and he knows that for love of him she disclosed to herself to him
for one moment, aflame with love for him. So it is with the words of the
Torah, which reveals herself only to those who love her. The Torah knows
the mystic (hakkim libba, literally the wise of heart) haunts the gate
of her house. What does she do? From within her hidden palace she discloses
her face and beckons to him and returns forthwith to her place and hides.
Those who are there see nothing and know nothing, only he alone, and he
is drawn to her with his heart and soul and his whole being. Thus the Torah
reveals herself and hides, and goes out in love to her lover and arouses
love in him. Come and see: this is the way of the Torah. At first, when
she wishes to reveal herself to a man, she gives him a momentary sign.
If he understands, well and good; if not, she sends to him and calls him
a simpleton. To the messenger she sends to him, the Torah says: 'Tell the
simpleton to come here that I may speak to him.' As it is written (Proverbs
9:47): 'Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither, she saith to him that
wanteth understanding.' When he comes to her, she begins from behind a
curtain to speak words in keeping with his understanding, until very slowly
insight comes to him, and this is called derasha (mode of interpretation
practiced by Talmudists, by which they derived the exoteric and oral doctrine
from the words of Scripture in accordance with certain fixed norms). Then
through a light veil she speaks allegorical words (millin de hida) and
that is what is meant by haggadah. Only when he has become familiar with
her does she reveal herself to him face to face and speak to him of all
her hidden secrets and all her hidden ways, which have been in her heart
from the beginning. Such a man is then termed perfect, 'a master,' that
is to say, a 'bridegroom of the Torah' in the strictest sense, the master
of the house, to whom she discloses all her secrets, concealing nothing.
She says to him: 'Do you see now how many mysteries were contained in that
sign I gave you on the first day, and what its true meaning is?' Then he
understands that to those words indeed nothing may be added and nothing
taken away. And then for the first time he understands the true meaning
of the words of the Torah, as they stand there, those words to which not
a syllable or a letter may be added and from which none may be taken away.
And therefore men should take care to pursue the Torah (that is, study
it with great precision), in order to become her lover as has been related."
Although this article has focused on a formalized view of Judeo-Christan mysticism, Kabbalah...one cannot lose sight that mystics are in all traditions and are the catalyst for religious theosophical transformation. Mystics utilize the symbols and forms of their cultures for explanation of experience and understandings, but the method they use to reach these conclusions, and what transpires during and from the mystical path is amazingly repetitious no matter what culture or religious climate it is birthed in. Here is a final case in point:
From Rabbinic Tradition: The patriarch Enoch, who according to an old tradition was taken from earth by God and transformed into the angel Metatron, is said to have been a cobbler. At every stitch of his awl he not only joined the upper leather with the sole, but all upper things with all lower things. In other words, he had accompanied his work at every step with meditations which drew the stream of emanations down from the upper to the lower (so transforming profane action into ritual action), until he himself was transfigured from the earthly Enoch into the transcendent Metatron, who had been the object of his meditations. This tendency toward the sacred transformation of the purely mundane forms the opposite pole in Kabbalistic conception of human action as cosmic action.
From a Tibetan Tantric text Tales
of the Eighty-four Magicians: Jacob Boehme, the guru Camamra (which
means shoemaker), receives instruction from a yogi concerning the leather,
the awl, the thread, and the shoe considered as the "self-created fruit."
For twelve years he meditates day and night over his shoemaking, until
he attains perfect enlightenment and is borne aloft.
Rev. Kythera Ann