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The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition

The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition

by Lawrence Kushner

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The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition, guided by Lawrence Kushner, explains the principles of Jewish mystical thinking, their religious and spiritual significance, and how they relate to our lives. Kushner offers us a step-by-step exploration of:
  • · What "Jewish mysticism" means—the key concepts in mysticism, with classic texts to explore and learn


The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition, guided by Lawrence Kushner, explains the principles of Jewish mystical thinking, their religious and spiritual significance, and how they relate to our lives. Kushner offers us a step-by-step exploration of:

  • · What "Jewish mysticism" means—the key concepts in mysticism, with classic texts to explore and learn from.
  • · Why mysticism is a part of the modern Jewish experience.
  • · The goals of mysticism, and how they relate to broader Jewish spirituality.
Here is a book that allows us to experience and understand the Jewish mystical approach to our place in the world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Jewish Lights adds another installment to its The Way Into... series with this examination of Jewish mysticism, which fails to live up to the standard of earlier volumes on such subjects as prayer and God. While those books each succeeded in presenting a basic introduction to one important concept in Judaism, most readers will find that Jewish mysticism continues to be a mystery after reading Kushner's murky primer. This is a shame, since Kushner is a genuine expert on Jewish mysticism and has authored much better books (Honey from the Rock; The River of Light) on the subject. Here, he relies largely on "classical texts" that turn on unfathomable passages drawn mostly from obscure 18th-century Hasidic rebbes. The material is organized into three parts, based on his division of Psalm 19 into a "triptych of Jewish mystical tradition." Throughout, Kushner offers 50 "Jewish mystical ideas": phrases, words or brief biblical quotations that are supposedly explained by the citations from the Hasidic rebbes. Some attempts at clarification become gross oversimplifications; for example, Kushner confounds Jewish mysticism with political activism, asserting that the mysticism of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "like most Jewish mysticism, was one of political activism." Such dubious statements are disappointing in a work that ought to elucidate the Jewish mystical tradition, not shroud it in further layers of obfuscation. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The emptiness of a material existence and the loss of a central meaning in life have led many to look for access to spirituality through mysticism. Another entry in Jewish Lights' "The Way Into" series, this book by well-known rabbi, NPR commentator, and prolific author Kushner (Eyes Remade for Wonder, LJ 11/98; Hebrew Union Coll.) is directed to just such an audience, providing guidelines for the expansion of this discipline and the fulfillment of an often unacknowledged yearning. Kushner examines the primary themes of this mystical tradition through translated excerpts from classical texts. Each of the book's short chapters opens with one or more of these texts, after which the author of the excerpt is identified and the text is discussed in the context of mystical scholarship. The texts are chosen for their clarity, accessibility, and concise approach to the topic discussed. Kushner forms a clear path by which a novice in mystical learning can gain an understanding of the tradition and embark on a path of study. This is recommended for larger public libraries or smaller collections where there is an interest in mystical and spiritual movements. Idelle Rudman, Touro Coll. Lib., New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Turner Publishing Company
Publication date:
Way into... Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It's not that God can be found everywhere, but that everywhere (and everyone) is a manifestation of the Divine. Everything exists within God. In moments of heightened awareness, human beings realize their continuous dependence on and presence within God. The Hebrew kavod, customarily translated as "glory," might be more appropriately rendered "presence." Let us begin now with the first part of Psalm 19, the presence of God.

1. God's presence is the fullness of all the world. —Isaiah 6:3

Legacy of Wonder

    Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man

    Abraham Joshua Heschel is easily the best-known mystical teacher of the last generation. Born in Warsaw in 1907, scion of a Hasidic dynasty, Heschel was uniquely qualified to combine Western scholarship with Eastern mysticism. Heschel's mysticism—like most Jewish mysticism—was one of political activism. An outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam, he was literally on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement as well. The Encyclopedia Judaica, in its entry on "Negro-Jewish Relations," includes a photograph of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. These were frightening times; protesters had been (and would yet be) murdered. Leading the march were Roy Wilkins, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Heschel. Heschel died in 1972; he was perhaps the last rebbe educated as a boy in the living community of Polish Hasidim.

    The following passage is taken from Heschel'sclassic God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. In his distinctive poetic and aphoristic style, Heschel expresses the primary tenet of the Jewish mystical imagination: The whole world is filled with the presence of God. Or, in the words of Isaiah 6:3, "God's presence is the fullness of the world." There is no place without the Divine. In Heschel's formulation, wonderment is the touchstone for all spiritual life. The beginning of religious awareness is standing astonished, reverent, and chastened before the mystery of being. Heschel cautions us that taking things for granted invariably seals us off, not only from novelty and surprise but also from life itself. For Heschel, our chronic dullness to wonderment is the beginning of sinfulness. There is simply more to reality than meets the eye. The closer we look, the more we discover hidden layers of being, and this invariably leads us to God.

Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. (43)

[Citing Nachmanides, Commentary on Exodus 13:16] The belief in "the hidden miracles is the basis for the entire Torah. A man has no share in the Torah, unless he believes that all things and all events in the life of the individual as well as in the life of society are miracles. There is no such thing as the natural course of events...."(51)

The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.... Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality. The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence. Not only man; even inanimate things stand in a relation to the Creator. The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event. (74)

2. The power of the Creator within each created thing

Power of the Creator

    Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, Me'or Eina'im

    According to classical Hasidism, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing. Hasidism is the most recent flowering of the Jewish mystical impulse. Beginning in mid-eighteenth-century Poland as an ecstatic folk revival, Hasidism understood communion with God as the primary goal of religious life and made it available to the masses. The movement was founded by Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760), who came to be known as the Baal Shem Tov, or, after the initials of his Hebrew name, the BeSHT. He preached a Judaism that even the unlearned could easily embrace. Each Hasid became the disciple of a particular rabbi, or rebbe, who served as spiritual mentor. The BeSHT had four primary students, each of whom in turn generated his own circle of disciples: Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch; Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz; Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye; and the author of the following passage, Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797). Nachum worked as a teacher and lived in poverty.

    Like the majority of the literature of theoretical Hasidism (as opposed to its legends and stories), this passage is woven into a teaching on the weekly Torah portion. A canvas painted by Claude Monet has value and power even if the painting itself is of apparently inferior artistic quality. The mere fact that the great impressionist master painted it makes it instructive and therefore significant. The power of the creator, in other words, remains within the creation. In the same way, all of creation, "the fullness of the world," is likewise a manifestation of—and therefore a mechanism for returning to—the Creator. We can access the Creator everywhere.

God is the fullness of the world; there is no place empty of the divine. There is nothing besides God and everything that exists comes from God. And, for this reason, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing. (14)

3. There is no place without God's presence

The Sand beneath My Feet

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piesetzna, Benei Makhshava Tovah

    Following World War II, while clearing land for new construction on the site of what had once been the Warsaw Ghetto, a worker unearthed a container filled with Hebrew manuscripts. They were the writings of Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Piesetzna (Pee-ah-SETZ-nah, 1889-1943). Kalonymous Kalman was born in Grodzisk, Poland, and died in the Trawniki concentration camp. His biographer, Dr. Nehemia Polen of Boston's Hebrew College, notes that the Piesetzner's book Eish Kodesh, "Holy Fire," was the last work of Hasidism written on Polish soil. For Kalonymous Kalman, God can be found everywhere and within everything—not merely in the first springtime flowers or the majesty of the mountains, but even in apparently ungodly and irrelevant things like grains of sand. Everything dissolves into and is nullified within God. Indeed, the only impediment to such cosmic vision is our refusal to see ourselves as indistinguishable manifestations of the divine unity underlying all creation, the mother lode of all meaning. In such moments of heightened awareness, the mystic realizes that God is not other than the world, but that being is itself made of God. In the words of one ancient maxim: Min ha-olam ye-ad ha-olam ata Ayl, "From one end of being unto the other, You are God."

    The following passage is taken from one of the Piesetzner's earlier works, Benei Makhshava Tovah, a meditative journal for those seeking to create a spiritual community.

I may not be able to see it right now, but the Holy One fills all creation, being is made of God, you and I, everything is made of God—even the grains of sand beneath my feet, the whole world is included and therefore utterly nullified within God—while I, in my stubborn insistence on my own autonomy and independence, only succeed in banishing myself from any possibility of meaning whatsoever. (33)

The Castle of Illusions

    Israel Baal Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov

    A similar way of suggesting that God's presence permeates all creation can be found in the following popular story attributed to Israel Baal Shem Tov (whom we shall discuss in section 9). The reason we cannot readily see the divine presence, suggests the teaching, is that the world of our senses is illusory. However, through perseverance and devotion, we can access the ultimate nature of reality. The story appears in Keter Shem Tov ("The Crown of a Good Name"), an anthology of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings assembled from the writings of Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye in 1794 (see section 16).

And some say that the Holy One does this in order to appear to a person that He is distant, and so that the person should strive to get very close. The Baal Shem Tov, his memory is a blessing, used to tell the following parable before the blowing of the shofar [on Rosh Hashanah]: "Once there was a very wise king. He made [an] illusory [castle with illusory] walls, towers and gates. Then he commanded that [his subjects] should come to him through the [illusory walls and] gates and the towers. Then he scattered before each and every gate royal treasures. [In this way] when someone came to the first gate, he took the money and left. And so it went [with one seeker after another] until the beloved son came with great determination and proceeded [to walk through one wall after another] right up to his father the king. Then he realized that there was nothing separating himself from his father. Everything was an illusion." (13)

4. The light of the Divine Presence is everywhere

Invitation to Awareness

    Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook, Orot Ha-Kodesh

    Ray Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of prestate Israel. Trained in Talmud in Lithuania, Kook was a prolific mystical author. His published essays, theology, meditations, and poetry fill dozens of volumes. His Hebrew is rich but dense. Throughout his writing we find the theme of the omnipresence of the Divine and a corresponding respect for all human beings, whether they be pious Orthodox Jews, secular Zionists, or adherents of other religions. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his spiritual leadership and example.

    The story is told of how Rav Kook dealt with the news that the manager of Jerusalem's only movie theater had decided to keep it open in violation of the Sabbath. Kook literally took to the streets. He stationed himself in silence on the corner in front of the movie house. One by one, as prospective patrons passed their sainted rabbi, they found themselves unable to enter. The battle was won without a shot being fired. The story illustrates an important principle about Kook's teaching and model (which reappears again and again throughout the history of Jewish mysticism). People are assumed to be fundamentally good. They do not need coercion or force to do the right thing; they require only reminding and encouragement.

    The following passage is from Orot Ha-Kodesh ("The Lights of Holiness"). Next to his short classic on repentance, Orot Ha-Teshuvah ("The Lights of Repentance"), Orot Ha-Kodesh is Kook's best-known work. It is usually published in four volumes. Here we meet a man filled with optimism and enthusiasm. The divine reality can be found everywhere, realized through our every action.

If you want, O creature of flesh and blood, contemplate the light of God's presence throughout all creation. Contemplate the ecstasy of spiritual existence and how it suffuses every dimension of life—spiritual and material. Right there before the vision of your body and the vision of your soul.

Meditate on the wonders of creation and the divine life within them. Not in some diluted form, as a mere performance distant from your vision but instead, know it as the reality within which you live.

    Know yourself and know your world. Know the meditations of your own heart and of every sentient being. Locate the Source of Life deep within you, high above you and all around you—the wondrous splendor of life within which you dwell.

    Now raise the love you feel within you to the source of her strength and the ecstasy of her glory. Let her blossom within every meditation. For the cascade of the Soul of the Life of the worlds is a splendor only diminished by the vantage point of the one who seeks to understand.

    See the lights and see what is within them. Don't let the holy Names and phrases and letters overwhelm your soul for they have been given over into your hand and not you into theirs.

    Go all the way up! The strength is yours—wings of spirit like mighty eagles. Don't weaken them, lest they weaken you. But seek them and they will be there for you at once.

    So precious and sacred are the manifestations of this reality to us! They are an obligation for us along with all those of more limited spiritual vision. Once we attain a life of awareness, we must not stray from that supernal point. The light always flows from that which cannot be fathomed toward that which can. It emanates from the light of the One without end.

    We are each summoned to delight in the ecstasy of heaven, with each individual thought which is all part of the great unity from which all life issues. (83-84)

What People are Saying About This

Lawrence Kushner
Religion is a more or less organized way of remembering that every mystery points to a higher reality. A reality overarching and infusing this world with splendor. One pulsing through its veins. Unnoticed and unnamed. Of the Nameless One. A holiness so holy that it fills even our everyday illusions with spiritual meaning.
— (Lawrence Kushner, author)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Kushner, author, lecturer and spiritual leader, is regarded as one of the most creative religious thinkers and writers in America. A commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, he has focused us on spiritual renewal with wisdom and humor. Through his books and lectures, people of every faith and background have found inspiration and new strength for spiritual search and growth. It has been said that some spiritual leaders blend religion and psychology to help us walk better on the ground, but Lawrence Kushner draws on the wisdom of the mystics to help us dance better on the ceiling.

Kushner's acclaimed books include I’m God; You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego; Honey from the Rock: An Easy Introduction to Jewish Mysticism; Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary; The Book of Letters: A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet; Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians; and In God’s Hands, an inspiring fable for children, with Gary Schmidt (all Jewish Lights).

Kushner served as rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts, for almost thirty years; he is currently the Emanu-El scholar at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and an adjunct faculty member at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. He is fascinated by graphic design and computers (designing most of his Jewish Lights books). He enjoys Mozart, hanging around sailboats, and making his granddaughters giggle.

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