After many years of not paying attention to anything of the sort, I find myself sitting in a Jewish Mysticism course, needing to fill a requirement for my minor. What I didn’t realize is that the course is split and is also for graduate students, and the reading material reflects it both in volume and complexity (not to mention “the flame of darkness that brings forth into being”). I hope I haven’t gotten myself into something fully beyond my ken.
Notes from the first day.
- The less you know about a subject, the clearer an image you have of it. Professor wants to get us to the point where we know nothing. A reasonably clear but elementary understanding. (Like chess: can know how the pieces and the moves, but cannot teach how to be a master champion.) Understand the magnitude, complexity, and interconnectedness demanded by the task of mysticism.
- Will give lectures, but invites interruption!
The study of Judaism
- The term “Judaism” invented not by Jews, but by Christians. Jews define themselves as members of an extended family that goes back to ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses), even for adopted members (converts).
- Concept of the Jewish soul, and that even converts have it – like transsexuals who feel they were born in the wrong body.
- What do Jews believe? Less like Christian credo, more like storytelling. Shabbat not celebrated because “I believe…” but because the story of “God created and then rested.” (Anthropologist Geertz: understand people through their stories.) Like Islam, Judaism develops in the Middle Ages as centrally based on laws. Explanation and interpretation of the law is important.
- Stories often contradict themselves.
Views on mysticism
- It is unmediated experience of God/the Divine
- No such thing as abstract mystical experience exists; each kind of mysticism relies on the stories, techniques and context of its corresponding religion, and is therefore not unmediated. Same light; different lampshades.
- The existence of divine light is being assumed. Is this correct?
- Some reject a Jewish mysticism at all because Jewish mystics don’t have a different path or doctrine, like other mystics do. It’s all about Torah, just like other Jews: it’s the interpretation of it that differs on the same laws and stories.
Wisdom/truth is all already known in the past
- When the Messiah comes, when the Third Temple is constructed, will it be lit by electricity or olive oil lamps?
- Electricity because it is brighter, better, clear
- No, if it’s true and good is had to have been known by great ancient rabbis, has to be old, has to come from Moses at Sinai.
For this reason the document of kabbalah, the Zohar, is claimed to be ancient from late antiquity thought it first appeared in the 13th century.
- This gave it credibility and the chance to be listened to
- Judaism as it develops in history lacks a hierarchy and authority that can speak and be obeyed. Power, instead, is derived from ability to convince people that when Torah says X, it means so-and-so. Kabbalists are in the market of another kind of interpretation. Their power, like all others, comes only from their ability to convince others
At this point, there was a big argument between some students and the professor about this. The former believed that certain rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov had credentials that had nothing to do with convincing. I loved how undiplomatically the twenty-year-olds were arguing with a man who could easily have been their grandfather.
I also liked how before the class began, the handful of students in the classroom, ages ranging from twenty to about sixty, all tried to find out if they had relatives that might have known other relatives or to otherwise situate each other in relation to themselves. And how one guy who just met another invites him to stay with him Friday night if he comes to his shul. Tribe, indeed.
But perhaps the best came at the very end when, just as the professor dismisses class, one person asks if anyone wants a ride into Cote-St-Luc, and a happy “yes!” rings out right after.