The earliest form of Jewish mysticism was the Merkavah tradition. Learned Rabbis would fast for 40 days and 40 nights, constantly in prayer, preparing for a conscious ascension to the highest hekhaloth, or the realm of the divine. The journey to the highest hekhaloth is quite treacherous for the Merkavah traveler. He must already have memorized all the names of the angels and holy creatures he might encounter in order to safely pass through. He must also have guarded his body with various mystical “seals”. Failure to know a name of an angel, or to have an improper seal over a part of the body can lead to serious danger. The traveler might even die in the realm of the divine.
In order for a Rabbi to be trained into the Merkavah tradition, he must be a master of Torah and he must already know about the tradition. After years of study he will be allowed to make his ascent. If he safely reaches the highest hekhaloth, God is required to answer any questions asked of him by the traveler. In the “Maaseh Merkavah”, a story taken from the Talmud describing the journey of the heavenly travelers, many cautions are given to the traveler about the divine realm. One story describes how four Rabbis were ascending to the hekhaloth, and only one returned unscathed. The others died or were driven insane from what they saw, because they did not have the proper names and seals required for safe passage.
When classified by Dale Cannon’s system, the Merkavah tradition falls under the way of shamanic mediation. The way of shamanic mediation requires entry into altered states of consciousness seeking well being or a healing on another, dangerous realm of the divine, usually mediated by a shaman. They see visions of consciousness not visible to normal people, which are used for healing the world. The ascension to the highest hekhaloth is an altered state of consciousness, shrouded in danger for only the most worthy and learned of the Rabbis to travel through safely. Here, the Rabbi acts as shaman, and is shown visions of heaven and God. Upon reaching the presence of God in the highest hekhaloth, one Rabbi inquired into the exile of the people of , hoping to receive an answer on how to end the exile, and reunite with God. This is an example of the Merkavah tradition fitting into the way of shamanic mediation because the Rabbi, acting as a shaman, enters an altered state of consciousness not visible to normal people, and attempts to heal the gap between God and Israel.
The next form of Jewish mysticism to emerge was Sefer Yetsirah. In this tradition, the Rabbis meditated on the numbers and the letters of creation, which were the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Though much is unknown about this tradition, the written style of Sefer Yetsirah is very similar to Mishnaic literature, and it is written in the same language as the Mishnah, Middle Hebrew. The practitioners of this tradition used meditative practices on the “living” Hebrew letters, in an attempt to link their own creative practices with God’s. They wanted to understand creation, and make use of it by participating in God’s creative powers. They felt that if human beings were created in the image of God, they should be able to tap into His powers using the building blocks of creation, the Hebrew alphabet.
Sefer Yetsirah is a difficult tradition to classify in Cannon’s system. It doesn’t match up with any of the six ways entirely. I find, however, that it most closely embodies the way of sacred rite more than the others. The goal of the way of sacred rite is to bring transcend linear time and bring people to another time through ritual leadership. The rituals remain exactly the same, and the activities tend to be communal. The way of sacred rite is usually all inclusive at different strata of the community.
Sefer Yetsirah is definitely an esoteric tradition, with barriers between members and non-members, so it certainly does not fit the last criteria of the way of sacred rite, but I do feel it fits the others. The goal of Sefer Yetsirah is to bring its practitioners back to the time of creation by meditating on the actual building blocks they believed God used to create the world. The methods and goals of their meditations remained the same, and were lead by a Rabbi, acting as ritual leadership. The Rabbi and his disciples would meditate communally on the Hebrew letters in order to tap into the time of creation, thus tapping into God himself. Again, Sefer Yetsirah does not fit the way of sacred rite perfectly, but it does fit better than the rest of the ways.
A later tradition emerging from Jewish mysticism was the Kabbalah, influenced heavily by Rabbi Isaac of Luria. One of the goals of the Kabbalists is to align their minds with the divine mind to experience what God experiences. They believe consciousness develops out of unconsciousness, and they try to understand how God’s consciousness is related to his unconsciousness. They believed theirs was an unknowable God, unless one knew how to unlock his secrets. They believe that the Torah is written in code, and every letter and word has a possible separate, internal meaning, thus making it a revelation and concealment of the divine. They must learn how to break the code to learn its inner meaning. The Torah reaches its full meaning when it is decoded. The Zohar, another cannon of Kabbalah, states the Kabbalistic belief that the world isn’t working because of human sin. The only way to fix this problem is for to carry out the Torah’s commandments.
I think the Kabbalah can be classified under the way of right action. This way is mainly concerned with behavior in the world. Usually lead by moral teachers, followers of the way of right action want to bring life into the way things ultimately are: moral and ethical. They are not just trying to create moral individualists, rather they wish to create an entire moral community. They think that behaving in accordance with the ultimate reality will bring at-oneness with it, thus healing the gap between people and God.
I think the Kabbalah fits this way because their main concern is that the world isn’t working due to human sin, and the only way to fix it is for to follow the commandments of the Torah. Commandments refers to those commandments clearly written in the Torah, and those unlocked in the code of the Torah by the Kabbalists. They are usually lead by a learned Rabbi acting as moral leader in efforts to create a moral community of to save the world from its problems.
The final tradition I will classify is the tradition of Hasidim. When this tradition first emerged, the Rabbinic community labeled them as heretical Sabbatienists in disguise. As the tradition developed, it gradually gained support from the main stream as non heretical, and eventually gained acceptance as a true path of Judaism. The Hasidic Jews are basically Kabbalists, believing that the Lurianic-Kabbalah (i.e. the Zohar, etc.) is the divine word, allowing for a variety of religious experiences. By default, Hasidim is very optimistic, believing that the world is a great place. They see that God infuses everyone and the goal for the practitioner is to remove all the blockers in order to see that truth. They believe that the exile of is only an apparent situation and is not ultimately real.
The Hasidim believes that prayer is more important than Torah study. The mainstream presumption of prayer is that God is far from , and prayer is a means of communication with Him. The Hasidim feel that presumption is wrong, and that one can feel God praying inside of oneself. They have a practice of ecstatic joy an emotion in prayer, which they believe is a demonstration of one’s metaphysics. In other words, they feel they can reach God inside of themselves through this ecstatic prayer.
I would classify the Hasidic tradition in the way of mystical quest. In this way of being religious, practitioners employ ascetic and meditative disciplines to slow down the unrealness of real life, and attain at-oneness with oneself. They employ a systematic alteration of consciousness, and the ultimate reality comes to be an abiding presence in everything. This way tends to be more introverted, as its truly a search within oneself for ultimate reality.
The Hasidic tradition believes God is within everyone and everything. They turn to ecstatic prayer as a means to alter their consciousness and reveal the divine within themselves. They believe the exile of is only apparent, and by using their prayer techniques, they can see proof of this from inside their own being. It is an introverted tradition, as it seeks to find God within people, not at some distant, separate realm.
The sphere of Jewish mysticism is far reaching, encompassing a vast number of different traditions within it. It is hard to see any correlation between these traditions, making it difficult to accept their classification as one, larger mystical tradition. A better way to term this eclectic grouping would be “Jewish Esoteric Thought”, as the esoteric nature of these traditions is the only thing they really have in common. Each of the four traditions outlined in this paper falls under a different way of being religious, employing different sets of beliefs and practices. It would be impossible to group Jewish mysticism as a whole into any one category, and I have a very hard time accepting that these diverse traditions can all be considered emanations of the single idea of Jewish mysticism.