November 22, 2011 by The Editor
An idea that I have been considering for some time is the notion that early Jewish mysticism constituted a mystery religion. If you accept the definition that a mystery religion is a set of practices that develops outside official religion, involving secret practices, esoteric knowledge, initiation, and the promise of a religious experience or an experience of being close to the divine, then I don’t see much daylight between “mystery religion” and what has come to be known generally as Kabbalah.
This idea gained traction for me after reading the chapter “The Mystic and the Mizwot” by Daniel C. Matt in Arthur Green’s Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages. The idea is brought to light in this chapter, in which Matt clearly demonstrates why he is and should be the person editing and translating into English the multi-volume Priztker edition of the Zohar. The chapter itself deals with how mystics in Medieval and ancient Judaism integrated the commandments, by which a Jew traditionally lives, into their mystical practice. (For more on the Zohar project, see this Q and A with Daniel Matt.)
Matt writes quite explicitly that early Jewish mysticism was a means through which Judaism was restored to a state in which the divine commandments became elements of a “secret code” through which the Kabbalistic myth is created; one cannot exist in this mystical realm without the other. Through Kabbalah, symbolic and magical elements of the mitvot (commandments) are enacted as part of a “cosmic drama” in which man is fully integrated, both playing the part of the divine and calling it forth through ritual, which is itself delineated through the commandments. (N.B. I am happy to provide the chapter to anyone who wants it in PDF.)
There is the argument to be made that religion today constitutes a means to salvation on the one hand, or on the other hand is (one of) the means through which we care for the poor, the sick, the troubled, the dispossessed. This latter element I believe is the role asserted by liberal religion, while traditional religion is still a religion in which the ‘mystery is the message.’ Salvation is the elusive goal achievable through means that are both clear and unclear. More importantly, salvation is available only to an elite with the right knowledge. Maybe the elite is a large group, perhaps an entire religion. Of course I am being polemical – all religions claim to know the truth and to have the right of entry to eternal life.
The question I have then is what is the value of mysticism? What is the value of the mystery? (This is not to include sudden, unsought mystical experiences, for instance the prophetic experience, or the experience of someone like Simone Weil who encountered sudden spiritual ecstasy in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, or perhaps someone who is led to action through a bat kol, a heavenly whisper, but rather the mystical experiences that are sought within the context of an esoteric tradition.)
If the goal is eternal life, union with the divine, or being part of the choirs of heaven, then shouldn’t every religion want to eliminate the ‘elite’ by allowing all seekers the opportunity to know God? Is God so small that only a chosen few, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, can bow before His Glory?
I submit that the mystery elements of religion, which demand a level of understanding and commitment that effectively preserve this esoteric knowledge for a select few (representing the most conservative trends in religion) still dominate. These trends in turn drive access to religious communities in which the information needed to access the divine is located. If religion is driven by the search for the Mystery, what constructive role does a religion play when its guardians make being a member of a religious community so difficult as to eliminate the seekers? Should God not be accessible to all?