Like the world in which we live today, mysticism is mysterious. In the same way that much of Western culture and politics seem to defy logic, many people are also puzzled by mystical literature.
Living in a time of science and academic achievements, future historians might well note our age’s inconsistencies and strange political behavior and call the early 21st century “an age of silliness.” Ours is a time when we waste a great deal of brainpower on the trivial. We now accept and expect a highly politicized media where much that is reported can only be called “surreal.” Ours is an age when much of our reported reality seems to spring forth directly out of the pages of a Garcia Márquez novel and punctuated with a strong dose of Orwellian double-speak.
In such a world, it should not surprise us that mystical literature attracts hundreds of thousands of people. In mysticism, the perplexed seek to make sense of the nonsensical and find comfort in a world that claims to be based on facts but in reality forces its facts to fit into preset paradigms. Such a world causes us to ask if mysticism’s draw is an anomaly to human rationality or a logical consequence to a social life that for many people seems to be an exercise in madness.
The study of mysticism is not easy. The term mysticism has multiple meanings, and unraveling it often resembles a Russian babushka doll, with one meaning wrapped in another. Jewish literature has a rich mystical vein. Often called “Kabbalah” (received knowledge) or “Chochmah Nistarah” (the Hidden Wisdom), Jewish mysticism is both a part of Western popular culture and deep philosophic inquiry into the unknown. Ironically, this most esoteric of subjects has become a popular form of American culture. In today’s world, Hollywood stars wear red ribbons around their wrists, and bookstores have whole shelves dedicated to Kabbalistic literature. On the other side of the world, visitors flock to northern Israel to visit the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There, nestled between the city’s many art galleries, pilgrims visit the great Kabbalists’ homes and synagogues and learn how, according to Kabbalistic tradition, God’s holy Sabbath begins each Friday night as the sun sets over the city of Tzfat.
Academic Kabbalah is not easy. To understand it, one must study Kabbalistic texts for years and have great linguistic skills and philosophical dexterity. From the Kabbalists’ perspective, knowledge is not divided into subject matters; rather, knowledge is like a continuous flowing stream. Kabbalists, unlike the modern academy, view knowledge as a continuum without clear boundaries. To be a mystic is to see reality as blended and multi-layered. The mystic’s world has no easy answers, and often knowledge is found not in what we know, but rather in the understanding of what we do not know.
For this reason Kabbalists argue that everything, from the spiritual to the physical, from the tangible to the intangible, is interconnected. We only fail to make these connections due to our arrogance and false belief in our capacity to understand not only the seen, but also the unseen. Kabbalists argue that the Divine is present in every aspect of reality, and we only fail to see it due to our lack of insight. For the mystic, God is present in everything and in every action. To ignore this reality is a sign of our blindness rather than of God’s absence. Thus, they quote Genesis when it speaks of Jacob fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath, falling asleep, and upon waking stating: “God was in this place and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)
The Kabbalistic tradition is rich in literary works. Its most famous work is called the Zohar (Book of Splendor). The book spans over a thousand pages, and as is typical of many mystical works, it is dense and obscure.
According to Kabbalistic tradition, the Almighty handed the Zohar to Moses at Mount Sinai, and it remained in an oral state until in the second century. It was at that time that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai transformed it from the oral state into its written state. Many scholars believe that the Spanish Kabbalist Moshe de Leon, some 1,100 years later, actually wrote the Zohar and then back-credited the work to Shimon be Yochai. If this is true, then we might call the Zohar a “plagiarism in reverse.”
According to Kabbalistic tradition, not everyone can study the Zohar. The mystics tell us that its readers are to be married men over the age of 40. To add to its mystic, these men are to study the Zohar only late at night. Despite these prohibitions, and the fact that translation is extremely difficult, many modern bookstores sell the Zohar, or parts of it. Perhaps because reading the Zohar takes one into another dimension of the mind, the book is popular with both Hollywood stars and New Age thinkers.
The Zohar (even in English translation) is a book that leads its reader into a spiritual world, filled with deep insights into the nature of humanity and the universe. We might call the Zohar an intellectual and spiritual travel log. The book “tells” the story of wandering mystics whose journeys (throughout the land of Israel) take us to new psychological dimensions. In it, we meet the interaction between two worlds: the tangible and the intangible, between reality and perceived reality. Among the “places” the journey takes us is to the nature of man, the relationships between the spiritual human and the physical human, to a world filled with sins and fears, rituals and Divine attributes. Throughout the journey we are in a world of perpetual exile that touches upon reality’s absurdities.
The book’s spiritual and psychological journey is long and rigorous. To understand it is to enter into not only an appreciation of life but also into the fundamentals of life itself. Ironically, Kabbalists were well ahead of their time both in the social sciences and in physics. The Zohar and its commentaries inspired both Freud and Jung. Even today, both psychologists and physicists find inspiration in the work’s insights.
The Zohar teaches us to go beyond the apparent, to seek out the hidden, to find the unconscious and to realize that the there is more to the world than any of us understand. Kabbalistic literature teaches us the art of humility in a world that is often academically, politically and socially all too arrogant. Ours, too, is a world that too often borders on irrationality. To study Kabbalah is to ask the “why” questions: Why are we here? Why did God create each of us? Is life a mere chance, or does it have a deep purpose? Kabbalah and its most famous book, the Zohar, touches our very souls and makes us enter into the mystery of those questions that too many of us prefer to avoid. Perhaps in such a world as ours entering into a world of mysticism is a highly rational act.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.