Question. Does Judaism require a belief in mysticism?
Answer. Rufus Jones has said that mysticism is “religion in its most acute, intense, and living stage”, but while in some religions mysticism developed outside and even in opposition to the structured norm, the Jewish mystics were within the tradition, communed with Judaism itself, and some, like Joseph Karo, were halachists as well as mystics.
In a sense, mysticism can be said to have begun in the Bible itself but it developed in Talmudic times and reached its most elaborate form in the Middle Ages; for details, the many works of Gershom Scholem should be consulted.
For convenience, let us select three favourite themes of Jewish mystical interest, already delineated by the Zohar – God, Torah and Israel:
1. Concerning God, the mystics probe into the nature of the “Shechinah”, Divine oneness, the secrets of creation, the Divine names and their power, and how the ineffable, limitless God can create a physical universe.
2. In relation to the Torah, the mystics focus on the secrets of events and personalities, letters and words, commandments and prayers, occasions (e.g. Shabbat) and moments (e.g. midnight).
3. Israel is not necessarily understood geographically but in the sense of Jewish people-hood, and the mystics delve into the secrets of Jewish experience and suffering, the nature of the Jewish soul and the personality of the Messiah. This is what is meant by communing with Judaism itself.
How common is mysticism within Judaism? In the sense of what might be called “rarefied” mysticism, it is not for everybody. Indirect mysticism, however, has entered and significantly influenced the liturgy and ritual of normative Judaism, and hence we all reflect mystical ways when we follow certain established traditions. There is also, in the view of an American writer, Max Kadushin, such a thing as “normal” mysticism, the daily occasions for experiencing God that come, for example, every time we say a b’rachah.
J Abelson, concluding his introductory note to the Soncino translation of the Zohar, says that though a Jew could not know God, “he nevertheless felt that it was given to him to transcend the crushing weight of earthly affairs, to be raised above the grosser hindrances of sense and to become an organ reflecting the Divine life. Such is the standpoint of the true mystic of all the ages. The Jew had it in overflowing measure”.
A thought for Yom HaSho’ah: POPE PIUS XII & THE JEWS.
Controversy still surrounds Pius XII for his alleged silence at Jewish suffering in the Sho’ah.
Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy”, depicted him in unflattering terms. Evidence on the other side is found in Pinchas Lapide’s “The Last Three Popes and the Jews”, issued in the 1960s. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The Pope seems to have had major failures of moral courage. He certainly tried to do a deal with Hitler, but his alleged silence was not as absolute as many suggest. He supported his predecessor’s “Mit Brennender Sorge”.
He criticised some Catholics’ obeisance to Hitler. He approved acts of humanity towards Jews, even when others rang the church bells to greet the Nazis.
It is right to criticise him for major lapses and for seeing a theological message in Jewish suffering – but if he lacked real moral courage, so did other world figures who knew what was happening and failed to raise a voice of protest.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.