Uniqueness of Jewish Mysticism
by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet
Judaism is based on the public Revelation at Sinai, when the Torah was
given to Israel. The historical event of Sinai attests to the divine source
and nature of the Torah, and the Torah in turn serves as the exclusive
criterion for any subsequent claims and teachings.
The general term for Jewish mysticism is Kabbala. Kabbala means "tradition". The Kabbala is not a compound of personal insights. It is not a collection of reports of what various sages and saints had to say on the meaning of life and ultimate values - based on their mystical experiences or visions. It is not a system born in a vacuum.
The Kabbala and its teachings - no less than the halacha - are an integral part of the Torah. They are traced back to the historical roots of Sinai, part and parcel of "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it...."
To be sure, in various works of the Kabbala one can find reports of mystical experiences, visions, the supernatural - all those things and more which we normally link to mysticism. They are there, but they are not the essence or even a major part of the Kabbala. At best they are effects, possibilities of potential effects that may accompany a mystic's life. The authentic mystic, however, will not seek to manipulate, and will shun interference with the natural order instituted by the Creator.
The authentic mystic seeks knowledge, understanding. He wants to "Know the G-d of your father", to fulfill the precept of "You shall know this day and consider in your heart that G-d He is G-d in Heaven above and upon the earth below - there is nothing else." He seeks to realize and understand this axiom not only as an intellectual affirmation of truth but as a living reality within the limits of his capacity - profoundly sensing the literal omnipresence of G-d, with a penetrating understanding and knowledge, as much as possible. ("The Authenticity of Kabbala," p.105-107)
Kabbala is theology in the fullest sense - including ontology, cosmogony and cosmology. It is not speculative philosophy based on human insight nor theories derived from human reasoning. It is a study, as it were, of Divinity and of the relationship between G-d and His Creation, based on the premises of revealed truth.
The Kabbala takes man beyond the normative understanding of reason. It goes beyond the exoteric part of Torah and transcends normative existence. It uncovers many of the infinite layers of the secrets of life, of Creation, of the soul, of the heavenly spheres. It penetrates beyond the garments and the body of the Torah. It is the very core and soul of Torah, the ultimate revelation of Divinity - exposing the inner meaning, effects and purpose of Torah and mitzvot. The illumination emanating from the Kabbala ignites the soul of man, setting it on fire in the awareness of a deeper and higher reality. Its study and insights are themselves mystical experiences. The Kabbala is all this - but always and exclusively within the context of Torah. As a body cannot function without a soul, so the soul is ineffective without the body. The soul of the Torah, (nistar, the esoteric part of the Torah) can never be separated from the body of the Torah (nigleh, the exoteric parts; halacha, the commandments and practices prescribed by the Torah). Kabbala reduced to spiritual or philosophical symbolism, stripped from the observance of the mitzvot, is worthless mumbo-jumbo, an empty shell.
This is the first and foremost difference between Jewish mysticism and all other kinds and forms. That is why Jewish mysticism can never fall into the category of a cult.
The great mystics and philosophers outside Judaism, in the East and in the West, were honest and sincere sages. They did seek truth. They did not look for answers to justify or verify any of their preconceived notions. They were not indulging their egos. And many did discover and develop profound theories and insights which stir the imagination and move the human spirit. Some had glimpses of ultimate reality. Yet, in spite of all this, they worked in a chameleonic void. They could move only as far as finite and fallible man is able to reach on his own. Their insights or findings, therefore, are either humanly verifiable (that is, logically self-evident truth or tautologies) or else speculative truth which at best contains an element of possibility but never the assurance of certitude.
The Kabbala, on the other hand, builds on the revealed truth of Torah. The validity of its speculative theories and subjective experiences must be, and is, tested and verified by that truth in order to be worthy of consideration, to be viable and acceptable. It has, and continually uses, objective criteria to make it consistent with, and as reliable as, halacha.