The Wisdom of the Jewish Mystics is a selection of the most important writings, commentary, and ideas of the Jewish mystical tradition through the ages. The sayings are drawn primarily from the great Hasidic writers, who produced a new genre of mystical literature for laypeople. In his introduction, Dr. Unterman explains the background of kabbalistic thought and distills the quintessence of the mystics’ wisdom. “Reality is the clothing of . . . the Godhead itself,” he writes. “The mystic breaks through [the] perceptions which only tell us about the clothing, not about that which is clothed.”
About the Author
Alan Unterman was born and raised in London. He studied philosophy and comparative religion at Oxford, then traveled to India to study Hindu mysticism (particularly as it relates to Judaism), for which he received his doctorate. Dr. Unterman is the author of numerous other books, including Jews: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1976); Judaism and Art (1980); and A Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend (1993). He lives in Cheshire, England, where he serves as the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue.
The Wisdom of the Jewish Mystics
Stories and Sayings
From Part 1: The Wisdom of the Jewish Mystics
The Jewish mystical tradition of theosophical teaching and practice, which aims at direct encounter between man’s soul and God, has its roots deep in the Jewish past yet lives on within the religious milieu of the Jewish present. In different parts of the globe, from Montreal or Brooklyn in the West to Jerusalem, Bnai Braq or Safed in the East, the teachings of the Jewish mystics throughout the ages are studied, and the mystic path which they have laid out with great care and love is assiduously followed. To the outsider, the contemporary Jewish mystic may seem quite ordinary; one could pass him in a typical Jerusalem side street without a second glance. Yet he possesses an inner world of infinite richness and color. He shuffles along the road dressed in dark clothes, turns into a dimly lit synagogue whose interior is drab and seems distinguished only by the chaotic arrangement of its tables and benches, and sits down in front of a rather shabby book. This book may be any one of dozens of mystical texts, most probably it is one of the volumes of the Zohar, the Book of Splendour, written in a curious Aramaic and regarded as the Bible of Jewish mysticism. Before opening the book he sits for a moment with his eyes closed, and meditates, utters a prayer, or mumbles over and over the words: “Open my eyes so that I may perceive the wonders of Your teaching.” He is about to enter a world very different from the world he sees about him; a world of symbols and images before which the hard empirical reality of his environment melts into insubstantial shadows. As he opens the volume of the Zohar and chants its strange cadences a glazed look comes into his eyes, his inner world begins to open up to the power of the Jewish theosophical symbols. His soul has taken flight to dimensions which the mystics simply refer to as “the upper worlds,” with flushed face he unifies the upper and lower worlds within himself. Unfortunately we cannot follow him into the symbolic world of the Zohar, for he has embarked on a journey into the infinity of the Godhead, exploring the divine structures and dimensions which lie under the surface of the everyday reality which represents the limits of the world that we know.
From Part 2: Stories and Sayings
The following is a prayer, ascribed to R. Moses Cordovero, which should be said before the study of Kabbalah.
“Who sits on high but whose providence directs the worlds below. God of all emanated worlds, one and unique, master of awe and true judge, emanator of all emanations, creator of all creatures, former of all that has form, source of all action. Who is able to conceive of one myriad part of the great loftiness of Your wondrous deeds, let alone of the forms which You have formed. Who could think of knowing even one myriad part of the hidden secrets which are inherent in Your creation, let alone any infinitesimal fraction of Your emanation, with which the one and unique master unites himself in complete union.
“Therefore Father of Mercy forgive and pardon all my sins and transgressions. For all my organs and sinews, and the dimensions of my soul are like sheep without a shepherd. We have desecrated things which we cannot rectify without the great flow of divine light which comes from the heights above through the channels of divine light. Therefore may it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers that You should purify my soul in all dimensions, that I may be fit and worthy to awaken the Lower Waters through the study of holy mystical texts. Remove the covers from my eyes that I may behold wonders from Your Torah. Make me worthy to be illumined by the light of Your Torah in order to understand the beauty of the secrets of her mysteries….May the beauty of the Lord our God be on us and the work of our hands established for us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be in accordance with Your will, God my Rock and Redeemer.”
Once four Talmudic sages went on the mystical journey to Paradise. They were Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Aher (the name by which Elisha ben Avuyah was known), and R.Akiva. R.Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble be careful not to say “Water, water,” for it is written “He who speaks falsehood cannot stand before my eyes.” Ben Azai gazed and died; Ben Zoma gazed and went mad; Aher cut the plants (i.e. became a heretic); R. Akiva came out in peace.
The Zohar teaches: And God said: Let the earth bring forth a living spirit according to its kind. All the spirits of the world are made up from male and female components. When they leave the heavenly world, they leave as male and female, and then their paths split up. If a man is worthy these two elements will later on be reunited, that is, he will find his soul mate.
The Zohar teaches: At the time when the Holy One created the world and wanted to reveal deep matters from their hidden recesses, and light from within darkness, they were intertwined with one another. Because of this, that out of darkness came light and from out of the hidden recesses were revealed deep matters, that one came from the other, it also is the other way round: out of the good emerges evil, and out of love emerges strict justice, since they are intertwined.
The Zohar teaches: The Holy One said to the created world: Let us make man, I and you. I will make the soul and you will provide the body! So it is that the body comes from the three levels of physical reality…and the soul is given by God….That is why the soul is separated from the physical mundane world and longs and desires for higher levels of holy spirituality…and that is why it is of eternal duration.