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A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader

A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader

by Daniel M. Horwitz
A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader

A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader

by Daniel M. Horwitz


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An unprecedented annotated anthology of the most important Jewish mystical works, A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader is designed to facilitate teaching these works to all levels of learners in adult education and college classroom settings. Daniel M. Horwitz’s insightful introductions and commentary accompany readings in the Talmud and Zohar and writings by Ba'al Shem Tov, Rav Kook, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others. 

Horwitz’s introduction describes five major types of Jewish mysticism and includes a brief chronology of their development, with a timeline. He begins with biblical prophecy and proceeds through the early mystical movements up through current beliefs. Chapters on key subjects characterize mystical expression through the ages, such as Creation and deveikut (“cleaving to God”); the role of Torah; the erotic; inclinations toward good and evil; magic; prayer and ritual; and more. Later chapters deal with Hasidism, the great mystical revival, and twentieth-century mystics, including Abraham Isaac Kook, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. A final chapter addresses today’s controversies concerning mysticism’s place within Judaism and its potential for enriching the Jewish religion.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827612860
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Series: JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 576
File size: 874 KB

About the Author

Daniel M. Horwitz is chapel rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas. He is a teacher at the Akiba Academy of Beth Yeshurun and the Houston Melton Adult Mini-School.

Read an Excerpt

A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader

By Daniel M. Horwitz

The Jewish Publication Society and University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2016 Daniel M. Horwitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8276-1286-0


What Is Jewish Mysticism?

Mysticism is the process of striving for an intense relationship with God, sometimes going so far as to achieve an altered state. This striving has the effect of adding energy and intensity to religious life. Hence, mysticism has been defined by Bernard McGinn as "the ongoing search for a heightened consciousness, or awareness, of the presence of the living God — the God who makes a difference not only in what believers think, but also in how they struggle to live."

A key word here is "search"; mystical experience does not usually come without effort, and it often requires using certain techniques as well as acquiring knowledge. Another important idea here is "presence." Those with a much more abstract notion of God, a God who does not address the personal situations of individuals, are likely to assume that the mystical quest is impossible or irrelevant. If this is your understanding of God, I hope you will suspend that for the time being and imagine what it would be like to believe in and even experience a different type of God. Imagine sensing that, as the Prophet Isaiah saw it, "the whole world is filled with His glory." Imagine that all we need to have this experience, to bridge the gap between God and human beings, is to refine our senses, acquire some knowledge and techniques, and sharpen our ethical sensitivities.

The mystic search for some form of union with the Divine is described by the twentieth-century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The universe, exposed to the violence of our analytical mind, is being broken apart. It is split into the known and unknown, into the seen and unseen. In mystic contemplation all things are seen as one. The mystic mind tends to hold the world together: to behold the seen in conjunction with the unseen, to keep the fellowship with the unknown through the revolving door of the known, "to learn the higher supernal wisdom from all" that the Lord has created and to regain the knowledge that once was in the possession of men and "that has perished from them." (Heschel, Mystical Element in Judaism, 603)

Many would consider this goal extremely dangerous. To mention one obvious concern, what would result from "union with God"? Could one possibly return from it? We will encounter ample evidence of such concerns throughout this book. Nonetheless Heschel insists that the mystical experience is the pinnacle of religion, revealing a truth beyond words, beyond what is visible to us.

The power of expression is not the monopoly of man. Expression and communication are, to some degree, something of which animals are capable. What characterizes man is not only his ability to develop words and symbols, but also his being compelled to draw a distinction between the utterable and the unutterable, to be stunned by that which is, but cannot be put into words....

What smites us with unquenchable amazement is not that which we grasp and are able to convey but that which lies within our reach but beyond our grasp; not the quantitative aspect of nature but something qualitative; not what is beyond our range in time and space but the true meaning, source and end of being, in other words, the ineffable. (Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, 4–5)

There will be a good deal on this subject that is difficult, if not impossible, to convey; this remains one of the chief challenges, even when the experienced mystic endeavors to tell us about the mystical experience. Nonetheless, the one who believes in a truth beyond what is visible will likely understand the world differently from others, and may, like many Jewish mystics, seek the tools that will help him or her interpret that truth.

While there are common experiences among all mystics, they pursue and convey the experience in terms consistent with their own religious traditions. There is no such thing as a "generic" mysticism, and Jewish mystics do not suddenly have visions focused on the cross or hear the voice of Mohammed. Jewish mysticism involves Jewish rituals and symbols.

Does this limit Jewish mystical experience? For instance, since the Torah tells us that we cannot "see" God, would the visual aspect of mystical experience be less frequent for Jews? We will see that the visual is not only a common theme, but in some periods one of the most frequent.

While Jewish mystics seemed to oppose what passed for normative Judaism in various eras, they firmly believed that their goals and experiences represented the most essential part of Judaism; they did not reject Rabbinic Judaism, but saw themselves and their practices as its fulfillment. The early Jewish mystics did not even have a concept such as "mysticism" and never thought their experiences so abnormal as to require a special term. Indeed Hebrew has no word for the mystical experience.

The texts in this book, taken from different eras, illustrate five different categories of Jewish mysticism. We will see later what techniques each of these types employs to achieve its goals, as well as how they work and more about how they developed.

Normal Mysticism

Ongoing Jewish activity maintains awareness of God's Presence, without any sort of paranormal activity. In mindfully fulfilling a precept or reciting a brief prayer, one consciously and simply acknowledges that Presence. Normal Mysticism turns common events like these into moments for a brief recognition of God. By creating such occasions, "an awareness of God seeps into all the activities of human life until this unseen Presence is taken as the true foundation of being." Jewish life offers continual ritual opportunities that can stimulate such awareness when they are carried out with proper intention. Such an experience involves no great intensity and indeed no such intensity is desirable for the average Jew. Anything beyond Normal Mysticism is intended only for an elite.

Deveikut, "Cleaving" to God

The root of the word deveikut appears in Gen. 2:24: "Hence a man leaves his father and mother v'davak b'ishto, and cleaves to his wife, so they become one flesh." This suggests for the mystic an intimate closeness with God. For some mystics, the ultimate religious experience is this intense sense of closeness with God, a radically transformative experience that involves a sweeping attempt to eliminate the gap between God and man. Complete deveikut may exist in intimate communion, or even union or reunion. The goal is to maintain intense intimacy as much as possible, and for the mystic who desires it the purpose of Jewish practice is to foster it.

Teacher and storyteller Yitzhak Buxbaum gives an excellent illustration of how this should work in daily life: "Consider what a person does when driving a car. He can turn the radio channel with one hand, adjust the speed with his foot, and, at the same time, carry on a conversation with a friend in the front seat; but all the while, his attention is firmly fixed on the road to see that he stays in his lane, and his second hand is on the wheel to steer the car. That is a matter of life and death. So can you do the things you have to do in the world while the greater part of your attention is fastened on God."

Mainline Kabbalah

The basic teaching of this form of Jewish mysticism is that what we do can affect God's inner life, and that by doing so we make a great difference for all life. This teaching is sometimes described as "theosophical," which means: having to do with mystical insights into the nature of God. As Heschel taught: "This is the pattern of Jewish mysticism: to have an open heart for the inner life of God. It is based on two assumptions: that there is an inner life in God, and that the existence of man ought to revolve in a spiritual dynamic course around the life of God."

It may seem strange to suggest we could have such knowledge of God's inner life, but much of the Jewish mystical tradition is based on this assumption. Mainline Kabbalah is also sometimes described as "theurgical," relating to the mystic's beneficent involvement in God's inner life, in order to accomplish goals on that level (which may incidentally benefit this world). Several chapters in this volume are devoted to the terminology Kabbalah uses in explaining what these goals are and how the mystic achieves them.

Affective Kabbalah

Affective Kabbalah is related to Mainline Kabbalah, but with one important difference. Action in this world still stimulates action in a higher world, but here the action is for human benefit, not for God's sake. This is human-centered mysticism, meant to address communal or personal needs. Jewish magic falls into this category, as it seeks to draw down and channel the divine powers toward certain goals. Specific deeds, holy or otherwise, promote or obstruct the divine flow that sustains our world. Frequently in this form of mysticism emphasis is placed on the role of the tzaddik, the spiritual master who is able to maintain a relationship with God, serve as a channel for divine grace, and improve conditions for us.

Prophetic, or Ecstatic, Kabbalah

Here, the highest goal is to achieve some form of union with God, but in a way that will enable an individual to reach the peak of his spiritual potential, achieve revelation through mystical experience, and even attain a level of prophecy. This level of enlightenment is a different kind of intimacy with God; it has additional purposes, such as learning the secrets of the Torah and God's decrees for the future, the prayers of the angels, and other supernatural knowledge.

The Historical Development of Jewish Mysticism

This book traces the history of the five types of Jewish mysticism described above as they manifest in several different categories over the last two thousand-plus years:

1. Mysticism in the Bible, both before and after the Second Temple, is addressed in chapter 2.

2. The Rabbinic period (first to eighth century CE), including not only the mainstream Rabbinic literature such as the Talmud and Midrash but also a variety of texts dealing with mystical experience, is covered in chapters 3 through 6.

3. Hasidei Ashkenaz (German pietists, eleventh to thirteenth century) and their form of mystical moralism are examined in chapter 7.

4. Early Kabbalah (twelfth to fifteenth century), the development of its main ideas in the Zohar, and the alternate path of Abulafia are covered in most of chapters 8 through 15.

5. Lurianic Kabbalah (sixteenth to seventeenth century), which was centered in the mystical community of Safed and greatly expanded upon existing kabbalistic practices, is the focus of chapters 16 through 18. (Chapters 19 through 22 examine specific concepts within Jewish mysticism and how they were interpreted during different periods.)

6. Hasidism (eighteenth century to the present) is the great revivalist movement founded in Eastern Europe that brought a kabbalistic view and practice to a much larger group of Jews than ever before. Selected Hasidic thinkers and ideas can be found in chapters 23 through 26, and three twentieth-century mystics are discussed in chapter 27.

7. What lies beyond the present? How did we get to the Judaism of today, and how might Jewish mysticism affect the Judaism of the future? These questions are dealt with directly in chapter 28 and indirectly in a number of other chapters.

This is not a guidebook for experiencing Jewish mystical heights, but it will give you a sense of what such experiences are like through the descriptions and teachings of those who claim to have had them. You will develop a sense for the impact of the mystical impulse on all aspects of Jewish life and why so many Jews in diverse times and places saw it as the central force and purpose of Judaism. And you will also understand the challenge it posed to Jewish leaders as it developed different forms. Finally, you will appreciate the joys and ecstasies — and also the potential dangers — experienced by those who pursued Jewish mystical experiences.


Mysticism in the Bible

The Hebrew Bible describes many meetings between God and human beings. We see the exceptional access granted to Moses and the Patriarchs. The prophets are given messages to transmit, and occasionally intense visions. Psalms frequently speak of the longing to experience and to dwell in God's Presence. When examining the mystical experiences recorded in the Bible, it is important to see not only the quality of these experiences but how they were understood in succeeding generations. Later mystics were inspired particularly by two visions, one of Isaiah and the other of Ezekiel.

Isaiah lived in the eighth century BCE; here he describes God's throne room, a divine parallel to the earthly Temple in Jerusalem.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other, "Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!"

The doorposts would shake at the sound of the one who called, and the House kept filling with smoke. I cried, "Woe is me; I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts." Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away."

Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me." And He said, "Go, say to that people: 'Hear, indeed, but do not understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp.'" (Isa. 6:1–9)

The mystical experience described here is not just about the message God gives the prophet; it's also about the prophet's reaction. By assigning this Isaiah passage as the haftarah to be read with the Torah reading (in Exodus 20) about God giving the Ten Commandments, the Rabbis made clear that they saw Isaiah's individual mystical experience of revelation as parallel to what the Israelites experienced at Sinai.

The opening verse suggests that Isaiah is within the temple courts. He suddenly has an ecstatic vision of God, similar to other biblical scenes of God's throne (such as in 1 Kings 22:19–23 and Dan. 7:9–14). A form of the word "fill" (malei) is repeated three times in the first four verses, emphasizing the overwhelming Presence of God. Angelic beings pay tribute to God, and Isaiah has an overpowering sense of his own impurity in this holy realm; one of the angels brings him a purifying coal, after which he is able to withstand the moment and bring a message from the higher realm to his people. Isaiah does not seem to have done anything to prepare for this experience; it is simply granted to him — or, more accurately, forced upon him. He does go up to the Temple in Jerusalem, but he is clearly raised up to a higher court. This is the mystical experience of the prophet; its goal is simply to prepare him to receive and transmit God's word.

What do the angels mean when they say that God's Presence (Kavod; sometimes translated as "glory") fills all the earth? What is this Kavod? It seems to be a visible manifestation of God's glory. If you are troubled by such anthropomorphisms (the attribution of human form or behavior to God), you are in good company; Maimonides and other medieval philosophers wrestled with this as well. We will see many other such expressions here and later, because they are common in mystical expression.

Now we turn to Ezekiel, who was carried from Jerusalem into exile in Babylonia, where he experiences this astonishing, even bizarre revelation:

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month — it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin — the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of the Lord came upon him there.


Excerpted from A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader by Daniel M. Horwitz. Copyright © 2016 Daniel M. Horwitz. Excerpted by permission of The Jewish Publication Society and University of Nebraska Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Landmark Dates and Key Figures in Jewish Mysticism,
Part 1. The Roots of Jewish Mysticism,
1. What Is Jewish Mysticism?,
2. Mysticism in the Bible,
Part 2. Early Mystical Pursuits,
3. Mysticism in the Talmud: Entering the Pardes,
4. Song of Songs and Ma'aseh Merkavah,
5. The Temple: The Meeting Place for God and His People,
6. Ma'aseh Bereshit, Sefer Yetzirah, and Sefer ha-Bahir: The Roots of Kabbalah,
7. Hasidei Ashkenaz: Mystical Moralism,
Part 3. Basic Concepts in Kabbalah,
8. The Ein Sof: That Which Is Endless,
9. The Sefirot: Perceiving God,
10. Deveikut: Cleaving to God,
11. Tzorekh Gavoha: The Divine Need,
Part 4. Further Developments in Kabbalah,
12. Prophetic-Ecstatic Kabbalah: Abraham Abulafia,
13. The Role of the Torah,
14. Sexuality in Jewish Mysticism,
15. Sin, Teshuvah, and the Yetzer ha-Ra: Tikkun,
16. Lurianic Kabbalah,
17. The Problem of Evil in Kabbalah,
18. Mystical Experiences, Ascetic Practices,
Part 5. Additional Issues in Kabbalah,
19. Four Worlds, Four Levels of Soul: Death and Transmigration,
20. Magic,
21. Messianism,
22. Prayer and Ritual in the Mystical Life,
Part 6. Hasidism,
23. The Ba'al Shem Tov and His Teachings,
24. The Role of Prayer and the Ba'al Shem Tov's Successors,
25. The Growth of Hasidism and Its Search for Truth,
26. Chabad Hasidism,
Part 7. Mysticism, Action, and Reaction,
27. Three Twentieth-Century Mystics,
28. Concealment and Distortion of Jewish Mysticism,
Suggestions for Further Reading,

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