Mysticism: Holiness East and West

By Denise Lardner Carmody; John Tully Carmody | Go to book overview
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partially. The biblical accounts of redemption (Exodus and entry into the Promised Land) and creation, along with the prophetic accounts of revelation and the rabbinic accounts of finding the divine will through the halakha, support a confidence that God is in the world, at least vestigially (as sparks of holiness) and that seeking God is not a waste time. On the other hand, the esoteric character of the Kabbalistic symbols, which sometimes the mystics elaborate with little critical control, indeed carelessly, heads in the direction of a mystical antinomianism or plain confusion, an intuition that because no laws or conceptual niceties or syllogisms can capture the divine mystery in its utterly simple primacy, what one says does not matter fully. Probably no Jewish mystical master would ever have signed a document with this proposition, but in practice the texts sometimes appear to be free-wheelings, sportings, exuberant larkings, or rocketings around the divine fire and sefiroth -- cosmogonic dances at the primordial beginning that can never come under human control. Certainly, sometimes the Kabbalists, like the halakhists, stand on the verge of claiming control, and so of risking idolatry, but the better explanation for the imaginative flights of a classical Kabbalistic text such as the Zohar may be the freedom that an awareness of "defeat from the start" can create.

The God at the beginnings of the Jewish quest for direct experience of ultimate reality never leaves the further historical course of that quest. Through all its legal and symbolic permutations, Jewish spirituality stays coherent through fidelity to its beginnings on Sinai, its conviction that its God moves in its history, and its love of the divine fire, the furnace of holiness.

Naturally, the distinctiveness of the history, both happenings and symbols, that shaped their people gives the Jewish mystics most of their special features. The core of that history is the Torah, how it arose and how Jews formed themselves through it. The commonness of Jewish mysticism, what it shares with other traditions to justify our ranging it alongside Buddhism or Islam, stems from the depth that it reached. At the point where Jews confessed that Israel had to hear repeatedly and daily that the Lord is one, they could move away from any restriction that would have made their theology or mysticism simply tribal, ethnic, or provincial. Crucial for Jews as constituting themselves through the Torah might be, they could know from their mystics as well as their rabbis that the Master of the Universe was the source of all creatures and that that chariot of the Master could carry a great variety of riders. 26

Eugene Borowitz, "Judaism: An Overview", in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade ( New York: Macmillan, 1987), 8:127-149.


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