Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

5. Jewish mysticism

Though the Hebrew Scriptures describe many encounters with the God of Israel (for example, Moses before the burning bush, Elijah at Horeb, Isaiah’s Temple vision), encounters often treated as paradigmatic in later Jewish and Christian mystical texts, many modern scholars prefer to classify these as numinous states, since they seem to involve the overwhelming sense of a sacred presence external to the subject, rather than an absorption into the divine. In the post-exilic period, Jewish spirituality became increasingly eschatological, even apocalyptic, giving rise in the first century bc to merkavah (chariot) mysticism, involving Gnostic-influenced mystical speculations on Ezekiel’s vision of the throne-chariot (Ezekiel 1), and the possibility of ascending through various spheres to the divine throne. Though merkavah mysticism declined in the Middle Ages, it left its imprint on the more popular movement of medieval Hasidism, which through prayer and religious practices cultivated intense awareness of the omnipresent creator (see Hasidism).

The first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria (§§1, 4), so deeply influenced by Greek thought, is usually ranked among the Hellenistic philosophers rather than within the main currents of Jewish spirituality. Nevertheless, he encourages pursuit of the direct vision of God, and develops a highly allegorical method for discerning mystical meanings in scriptural texts.

The Jewish spiritual movement known as Kabbalah found classic expression in the Zohar (Splendour), a massive and esoteric work claiming great antiquity but more probably dating from the thirteenth century. According to its complex speculations, echoing Gnostic and Neoplatonic themes, God is conceived as the Eyn Sof (Infinite), without qualities, but emanating ten ideal qualities, or Sefirot, the lowest of which includes the created order. Creation occurs within God, through a divinely initiated self-differentiation, and each soul contains some of the Sefirot. But since Adam’s Fall, the Shekinah, or divine presence, has been exiled from the Eyn Sof, and so the goal of the devout is to become aware of the divine presence within and thus help reunite the Shekinah with the Eyn Sof, restoring the cosmic order. Isaac Luria (1534–72), a major figure of this mystical school, conceived Adam as a cosmic figure (Adam Kadmon) whose Fall brought about the shattering of the ideal universe into the present material world, with the divine light broken up into the many sparks of individual souls; through prayer and concentrated devotion (kevannah) human beings could take an active role in the ultimate reintegration (tikkun) of all things (see Kabbalah).

More popular than speculative, modern Hasidism originated in the eighteenth century with Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700–60) and his successor Baer of Meseritz (1710–72). This mystical and devotional movement emphasizes especially the role of the Tzaddik, or perfectly righteous person, who alone can guide others effectively in their spiritual journey. Hasidism remains a strong force within contemporary Judaism.

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Jewish mysticism. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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