The Mystic's Conflict With Religious Authority
and an
Introduction to Kabbalah

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Defines practices based on Rabbinic tradition and primarily utilizes Hebrew and the Old Testament, though can expand to include the New Testament and Greek if using the same principles and techniques.


Defines practices based on Roman Catholic Catholicism and primarily utilizes Latin and the New Testament, though can expand to include the Old Testament and Hebrew if using the same principles and base assumptions.


Defines "magical" ritual and ceremonial practices that can draw for authority from Kabbalah or Cabala. A form of practice that developed from Alchemical traditions of the middle ages. Has evolved very differently than its sources and often is in conflict as a result.

Classical texts:

The Zohar, 13th century, translated as "Book of Splendor." Zohar literally means "radiance." Main position: Scripture is like man and has flesh (literal meaning), soul (allegorical interpretation), and spirit (mystical revelation); these can be understood by a fourth level: "understanding according to the mystery of faith."

Sepher Yetzirah, oral tradition claimed from the time of Abraham, first known references in early Talmudic period, translated as "Book of Creation." Main position: The Torah was formed by God before creation; the study of the letters and their numerical equivalents allows for understanding of the universe on multidimensional levels.

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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.

Allegorical interpretations arise spontaneously whenever a conflict between new ideas and those expressed in a sacred book necessitate some form of compromise.

Kabbalistic speculation and doctrine is concerned with the realm of the divine emanations or sefiroth in which God's creative power unfolds. Kabbalists have devised many ways of describing this realm. Since it is the principal content of a mystic's vision, they speak of it in a language of symbols, since it is not direct perceptible to the human mind. Insofar as God reveals himself, He does so through the creative power of the sefiroth. The God of whom religion speaks is always conceived under one or more aspects of His Being, which Kabbalists identify with the stages in the process of divine emanations. The Kabbalistic world of the sefiroth encompasses what philosophers and theologians call the world of divine attributes. To mystics, it is divine life itself, insofar as it moves towards Creation. This life is not separate from or subordinate to the Godhead; rather, it is the revelation of the hidden root, concerning which (since it is never manifested, not even in symbols) nothing can be said, and which Kabbalists call "ain soph," the infinite. This hidden root and the divine emanations are one.

 The process which Kabbalists describe as the emanation of divine energy and divine light is also characterized as the unfolding of the divine language. This gives rise to the parallelism between the two most important kinds of symbolism Kabbalists use to communicate their ideas. They speak of attributes and spheres of light; but in the same context, they speak also of divine names and the letters of which they are composed. From the very beginnings of Kabbalistic doctrine, these two manners of speaking appear side by side. The secret world of the godhead is a world of sound, a world of language, a world of divine names that unfold in accordance with a law of their own. The elements of the divine language appear as the letters of the Holy Scriptures. Letters and names are not only conventional means of communication; each one of them represents a concentration of energy and expresses a wealth of meaning which cannot be translated fully into human language. When Kabbalists speak of divine attributes and sefiroth, they are describing the hidden world under ten aspects; when they speak of the divine names and letters, they operate with the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet in which the Torah was written (they would say in which its secret essence is made communicable). The twenty-two consonants are symbolically represented as paths of communication between the ten sefiroth and in total represent the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge. Letters and sefiroth are different configurations of the divine power and cannot be reduced to mechanical identity. There is a necessary relationship between the mystical meaning of the Torah and the assumptions concerning its divine essence. The Kabbalistic conceptions of the true nature of the Torah are based on three fundamental principles:

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

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Principle of the Divine Name

God's name is the highest concentration of divine power. According to Moses ben Nahmanides (1200, Spain): " authentic tradition showing that the entire Torah consists of the names of God and that the words we read can be divided in a very different way, so as to form (esoteric names)...The statement in the Aggadah to the effect that the Torah was originally written with black fire on white fire obviously confirms our opinion that the writing was continuous, without division into words, which made it possible to read it either as a sequence of (esoteric) names (al derek ha-shemoth) or in the traditional way as history and commandments. Thus the Torah as given to Moses was divided into words in such a way as to be read as divine commandments. But at the same time he received the oral tradition, according to which it was to be read as a sequence of names." This idea flowered into the philosophy that: The Torah is not only made up of the divine names of God, but is as a whole the one great name of God, signified by the name YHWH. Commenting on a passage in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah to the effect that the word "light" occurs five times in the story of Creation, corresponding to the five books of the Torah, Ezra ben Solomon, an older contemporary of Nahmanides, writes: "How far-reaching are the words of this sage; his words are true indeed, for the five books of the Torah are the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He." The mystical light that shines in these books is thus the one great name of God.

 Here the Torah is interpreted as a mystical unity, whose primary purpose is not to convey a specific meaning, but rather to express the immensity of God's power, which is concentrated in his "Name." To say that the Torah is a name, does not mean it is a name that can be pronounced, nor has it anything to do with any national conceptions of the social function of a name. The meaning is that in the Torah, Divinity has expressed transcendent Being which can be revealed to Creation and through Creation. In the ancient Aggadah the Torah was regarded as an instrument of Creation. Far more than an instrument, it is the concentrated power of Divinity itself, as expressed in The Name. This basic idea of the Torah as the Name of the Source does not refer to the document written in ink on a scroll of parchment, but to the Torah as a pre-existential being, which preceded everything else in the world. According to the Aggadah, the Torah was created two thousand years before the Creation of the world. Kabbalists view this "creation of the Torah" as a process which the Divine Name or the divine Sefiroth emanated from Divinity's hidden essence. Therefore the Torah is not separate from the Divine Essence...not created in the strict sense of the word; rather, it is something that represents the secret life of Divinity, which the Kabbalistic emanation theory attempts to describe. The secret life of God is projected into the Torah. This conception of the Torah as the name of God means that it is a partial aspect of God's wisdom.

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Principle of the Torah as an Organism

Rabbinical Judaism sees two Torahs as one: a written Torah (the text of Pentateuch) and an oral Torah (everything said that's an interpretation). The oral Torah is the tradition of the congregation of Israel (Israel means "he who wrestles with God," therefore it is understood as the mind, or consciousness...the consciousness of Israel is the mind of humanity...the mind of humanity is referred to as the body [form] of God [Divinity]); it completes the written Torah and makes it more concrete. Rabbinical tradition states that Moses received both Torahs at once on Mount Sinai.

 The most interesting discussion of these two Torahs is a mystical commentary by Isaac the Blind in the beginning of the Midrash Konen. Here the Torah seems to burn before God in black fiery letters on white fire, and it is this conception which inspires the following: "In God's right hand were engraved all the engravings (innermost forms) that were destined some day to rise from potency to act. From the emanation of all (higher) sefiroth they were graven, scratched, and molded into the sefirah of Grace, which is also God's right hand, and this was done in an inward, inconceivably subtle way. This formation is called the concentrate, not yet unfolded Torah, and also the Torah of Grace. Along with all the other engravings (principally) two engravings were made in it. The one has the form of the written Torah, the other the form of the oral Torah. The form of the written Torah is that of the colors of white fire, and the form of the oral Torah has colored forms of black fire. And all these engravings and the not yet unfolded Torah existed potentially, perceptible neither to a spiritual nor a sensory eye, until the will inspired the idea of activating them by means of primordial wisdom and hidden knowledge. Thus at the beginning of all acts there was pre-existentially the not yet unfolded Torah (torah kelulah), which is in God's right hand with all the primordial forms that are hidden in it, and this is what the Midrash implies when it says God took the primordial Torah (Torah kedumah) which stems from the quarry of return and the original source of wisdom, and in one spiritual act emanated the not yet unfolded Torah in order to give permanence to the worlds."

The written Torah can take on corporeal form only through the power of the oral Torah; various frequencies of Light (sound) must be used to truly understand it.

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Principle of the Infinite Meaning of the Divine Word

What Kabbalists look for in the Bible is not primarily philosophical ideas, but a symbolic description of divine life, as it unfolds. Their primary interest in the Bible may be termed theosophical.

Since Creation and the Creator are infinite, so is the revelation. Therefore there can be no single "truth," but a constant unfolding of truth as consciousness can assimilate it. The whole is always greater than a part, our individual consciousness is but a part, so we will always be unfolding, realizing, understanding, more and more about Spirit. As we do, our interpretation of the Divine, of Spirit, of Universal Law, will reflect our new understandings and be communicated through new metaphors. The divine word (vibration) which is at the root of all manifested form is infinite in its expression, and our realizations and interpretations will be infinite in response. The sublime wonder and joy of ever- unfolding Creation never ceases to astound, amuse, and awe the Kabbalist. The paradoxes, such as that of "the One in Many and the Many in One," are dissolved before their ongoing direct experience.

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."

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Although this article has focused on a formalized view of Judeo-Christan mysticism, 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.

In Oneness,

Rev. Kythera Ann

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