The Ori­gins of Jew­ish Mysticism

Peter Schäfer
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
Through­out Jew­ish his­to­ry, unique indi­vid­u­als have had mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences. The true mys­tic engages in a soli­tary pur­suit (with the excep­tion of the Qum­ran com­mu­ni­ty). He rarely speaks of it, but often writes about it, if only to be able to dupli­cate the expe­ri­ence again. The schol­ar­ly explo­ration of Jew­ish mys­ti­cal texts reached its flo­res­cence with Ger­shom Scholem and is now well estab­lished in many uni­ver­si­ties.

When did the pur­suit of mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences begin? What is the nature of the Jew­ish mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence? What is the ear­li­est doc­u­men­tary evi­dence? This vol­ume traces the ear­li­est sources from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision known as the Merkavah or heav­en­ly char­i­ot.

Pro­fes­sor Peter Schäfer, one of the most dis­tin­guished liv­ing experts on the Hekhalot (lit. God’s cham­bers) lit­er­a­ture and Merkavah mys­ti­cism, presents an author­i­ta­tive and thor­ough expo­si­tion of his under­stand­ing of the ori­gins of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. He pro­vides a detailed analy­sis of most of the rel­e­vant texts, from Ezekiel’s visions, the Enochic lit­er­a­ture and relat­ed Old Tes­ta­ment pseude­pigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of Phi­lo of Alexan­dria, the rab­binic texts, and a selec­tion of the major Hekhalot col­lec­tions. Ulti­mate­ly the diver­si­ty of these sources leads him to doubt our abil­i­ty to find a cat­e­go­ry into which to fit them all, although he does sug­gest that all seek to bridge the gap between heav­en and earth and lead to the lov­ing and approach­able God.

He puts great empha­sis on approach­ing God through exe­ge­sis and exeget­i­cal exer­cis­es as opposed to ecsta­t­ic expe­ri­ences. How­ev­er, he does describe, in great detail, the var­i­ous forms of ascent, the dif­fer­ent spheres of Heav­en, the angels one meets on the way, and the var­i­ous expe­ri­ences that are beyond what is appar­ent to phys­i­cal per­cep­tion in order to open up per­cep­tions of oth­er dimen­sions of exis­tence. The Hekhalot lit­er­a­ture seems to con­sists large­ly of instruc­tion man­u­als pre­sent­ing rit­u­al prax­es that read­ers may use to con­trol angel­ic beings so as to obtain divine rev­e­la­tions and visions.

The Rab­bis were well aware of these oth­er­world­ly excur­sions and dis­cour­aged all but the very select few from even con­tem­plat­ing them. Jew­ish mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences can be won­der­ful, and illu­mi­nat­ing, but they are also very dan­ger­ous to the unini­ti­at­ed. The book is filled with inter­est­ing and orig­i­nal insights based on a life­time of study of these texts. It is not a book for begin­ners. Caveat lec­tor!
Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

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