Is Kabbalah a Mystery Religion?


November 22, 2011 by LeVoyageur

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?

4 thoughts on “Is Kabbalah a Mystery Religion?

  1. Harold Roth says:

    One problem with the questions you have posed here is that they assume that Judaism is and has historically been a monolith. It isn’t and has never been. Even when the Temple was still standing, there were fierce disagreements in terms of worship–one reason why the prophets got so cranky was that people insisted on making their own sacrifices on the hilltops instead of coming to Jerusalem and paying the priests to be their intermediaries. And this is not even counting the Pharisees and the synagogue movement, which started while the Temple was still standing and began with the assumption that anyone could approach God directly through prayer and did not need the Temple whatsoever, much less any mysticism. Even today, anyone Jewish can lead a service and a rabbi is not needed to perform marriages or conversions. All this is very hands-on in a way that flies in the face of esotericism or that excludes ordinary people from access to God. In Judaism, anyone can have direct access to God–not even through attending any services but through studying the holy books. Yes, you do need to know how to read, but then there is the tale of the man who was illiterate and only knew the names of the alphabet, which he would simply recite as his prayer, and that was considered a great honor to God

    We don’t have many records of mystical practices in Judaism from ancient times, but one thing that turns up when we get to Heikhalot and Merkavah is that there are books. Where there are books, we have to question how esoteric the movement really was. And certainly books are central to Kabbalah. One of the gripes that Early Modern rabbis had against the publishers of commentaries on books like the Yetzirah was that they were making this info available to everyone.

    I would like to point out that caring for the sick, the orphaned, and the impoverished bride have always been a part of Judaism and this is likewise included in the liturgy going back at least as far as early Middle Ages. There is nothing liberal about it. These are commandments no less than any other. Nor would I agree that salvation is the motive for existence of Judaism. It is hearing Torah and carrying out the commandments–because God said so, not for the sake of salvation. I believe that the idea that we do these things in exchange for salvation is a Christian one. It has always been my understanding that in Judaism, we follow the commandments without any expectation of reward.

  2. James LaForest says:

    Harold – Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. You raise a couple of issues that are important and need addressing. First, Judaism as a monolith – you are absolutely correct. There has been tremendous diversity within Judaism from nearly the very beginning. For me, the issue related to the idea of access is not the diversity, but the strains of religion, any religion, that limit access. I should have been more explicit that my topic is the conservative trends in religion. Secondly, with regard to Judaism and social action. As a Jew and someone who has taken part in charitable activities, I know full well the level and extent of Jewish involvement in communities of need. The morning prayer, quoting Talmud, sets the standards of behaviour in front of the devout at first light. But again, based on my own experience and observation, I would assert that for the more liberal movements in Judaism, this involvement is expressed universally, whereas for the more conservative movements (and let’s face it, most of Judaism is comprised of movements today) involvement is largely limited to activity within the Jewish community. The point of this is that conservative trends in religion ‘circle the wagons’ around faith and definitions of piety, restricting access to the secrets of the divine. This goes for any religion in my opinion, not just Judaism.

    Your last comment, that Jews follow the commandments without expectation of reward, speaks to individual motivation. I’m not sure Jewish theologies are clear on the point or on what constitutes salvation. If you consider the idea of ‘tikkun olam’ in terms of how it is defined by liberal movements, as social action which should lead to a messianic era, then I would assert that is a type of salvation that is brought about through observance of the commandments. When it comes to mystics, what are they doing then? And what is connecting to the divine if it is not salvation. (I will admit that salvation is a semantically loaded word!)

    Thanks again for reading and for commenting. –JL

  3. Harold Roth says:

    Hi, James,
    Well, it’s certainly true that the more liberal denominations of Judaism tend to be less parochial about the recipients of charity. Just the other night I was reading something from a Hasidic group that discussed charity, and it said while of course you can give charity to anyone, it is better to give it close to home, even to your own tzaddik. In contrast, I have gone to help cook Christmas dinner at a local shelter as part of charitable work through a Conservative synagogue. One thing is that there are way fewer poor Jews in the US than there used to be, so that might have something to do with the universalism of charity now. In the twenties, I know that German American Jews did have institutions of charity directed at East European Jewish immigrants, much as they despised them.:) But I am not sure how much this relates to mysticism.

    I also have seen many references from the most conservative sects saying that anyone who wants to study Kabbalah has to do it with a rabbi or tzaddik or not at all. But OTOH, some reject that. I was just reading a Breslov book that gave a list of things for people interested in Hasidism to study, and there were Kabbalistic books there and there was no “you cannot study these unless you have a tzaddik” thing there. For that matter, the best known translation of Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir were by a Hasidic rabbi, Aryeh Kaplan. It’s kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Hasidism arose preicsely as a reaction to all the obstacles the Mitnagdim put up to ordinary people coming to know the holy books. And yet now, there is much demand in Hasidism that you have to have an intermediary of some kind, like a rebbe.

    The thing is that I don’t think the divine or spirits or whatever we want to call them just wait there for us to approach them through rabbinically approved means. The divine approaches us directly, coming to us in dreams or just in our lived experiences. We don’t need an interpreter for that. We just need to be open.

    Thanks for your post. It made me think a lot about charity, something which has been on my mind for a while. It’s important to me and I have seen it as directly connected to mysticism but could not articulate why. I think I have clarified that somewhat for myself, and your post prompted me to do that. I look forward to reading more here.


  4. James LaForest says:

    That is certainly a result that I cannot argue with! : ) Thanks for reading! I appreciate the chance for dialogue and the opportunity to examine my own thoughts through the responses of others.

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