Jewish Mysticism – A Series of Seven Sessions
By Masorti Judaism
Six weeks ago, the Assif minyan at New North London Synagogue was about to start a new cycle of learning. The topic was Jewish Mysticism. We had done the introduction and lined up the teachers. And then came Corona and everything changed. But our human need for learning and inspiration tradition hasn’t changed, so we are going to continue with this series but in a different way. Over the coming days, we will share links to this cycle of seven talks by the fantastic teachers in our community.
The subjects we’ll be covering
Some caveats. We can’t do it all. We are going to skip out lots of important texts, including Moses, Ezekiel, the Mishnah and the Talmud. We’re moving swiftly on to Hasidei Ashkenaz in the 12th century with Rabbi Chaim. Then we’re moving to Luria and the Sefirot with Daniel Oppenheimer, the Ba’al Shem Tov in the late 18th century with Michael Wegier, the Piezena Rebbi in the early 20th century with Rabbi Oliver and then Arthur Green in the late 20th century with Rabbi Jonathan. Matt Plen will then contribute some thoughts on the academic study of Jewish mysticism with a session on the pioneering scholar of the field, Gershom Scholem.
Here are some common themes and definitions
Mysticism is a desire the know, to cleave to or to experience God.
Another way of talking about this in Jewish terms, is that we are dealing with Ma’aseh Merkava or Matters of (Ezekiel’s) Chariot referring to metaphysical or hidden matters. Ma’aseh Merkava is opposed to Ma’aseh Bereishit which refers to all created things that we can see in this world.
Words themselves have a huge part to play in this discussion. In the occult tradition, words are treated as equivalent to things in the world. If you manipulate words in a certain way, you can manipulate things in the physical world. Like when Hermione Granger says ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ in just the right way and the feather goes flying across the room.
That’s one way to look at words. The other way is to see that words themselves have limits, and that there are things that cannot be properly described using words.
Mysticism is often esoteric or elitist. According to the Mishnah it is forbidden to discuss these matters in public at all.
The health warning for our series from the Mishnah in Chagigah. It says one may not teach the secrets of the beginning of the world before two people, nor teach the mystical teachings of God, unless he is wise an understands on his own.
Three reasons to try some Jewish mysticism now
Firstly, few people live in a state of perpetual enlightenment. Including the Great Eagle himself, Maimonides. He says in Guide to the Perplexed:
‘Do not imagine that these great mysteries are completely and thoroughly known to any of us. By no means. Sometimes truth flashes up before us with daylight brightness but is soon obscured by the limitations of our material nature and social habit, and we all fall back into darkness’
Secondly, in this time of Corona, unless we are doing real work caring for the sick, the rest of us have lots of time to contemplate and understand on our own. Let’s make our privilege count.
Finally, we are truly lucky to part of this vibrant community with incredible teachers.