This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Mystical Mingling*

In spite of the claims in certain showbiz circles that you don't have to be Jewish to study Kabbalah, serious scholars of Judaism have raised questions about whether this uniquely Jewish school of esoteric interpretation can make any sense outside the boundaries of traditional Jewish belief, observance and scriptures.

Many would go so far as to argue that Kabbalah is not a form of mysticism at all, as mysticism is understood in other cultures. Unlike the Kabbalists, classic mystics strive to transcend the physical and social planes in order to experience union with the divine. In their attempts to reach such an exalted metaphysical goal, mysticism tends to emphasize universal values, and to minimize those features that distinguish religions from each other.

The pursuit of such paths has often created tensions between the mystics and the more orthodox religious authorities, who encourage adherence to specific rituals and regulations. This kind of tension has rarely arisen in Judaism, precisely because Kabbalah does not challenge the conventional halakhic life-style. Quite the contrary, it provides a compelling metaphysical validation for adherence to orthodox ritual observance. Therefore, unlike the mysticisms of other religious, Kabbalah has flourished not among marginal groups of recluses or dissidents, but among the foremost authorities on talmudic scholarship.

A paradigmatic example of conventional mysticism is the Islamic movement known as Sufism. Sufism arose as a protest against institutional orthodoxy, objecting not only to excesses of worldliness among the mainstream leadership, but also to their focus on religious laws and rituals, which it regarded as distractions from the supreme human vocation, the quest for communion with the divine.

Many Sufi teachers were pleased to disseminate their teachings among disciples outside the Muslim community. And in turn, many Jews were drawn to the philosophy, which (they felt) did not necessarily put them in conflict with their Jewish heritage.

Take, for example, the case of Basir, a Jewish bell-maker in fourteenth-century Cairo. Basir became so impressed with the Sufi brotherhood led by the charismatic Yusuf al-Jami al-Kurani that he abandoned his family, and was on the verge of selling his property in order to take up permanent residence in al-Kurani's secluded monastery.

Distraught by this prospect, Basir's wife appealed to the leader of Egypt's Jewish community, the Nagid David. She urged the Nagid to rescue her spouse from the clutches of the cult, to deprogram him, and to remind him of his duties to his wife, three children, and Judaism. Although her letter (preserved in the Cairo Genizah) relates sympathetically to Basir's quest for spiritual fulfillment, she is apprehensive that his Sufi life-style might eventually lead him to forsake his ancestral religion.

David the Nagid himself was heir to Rabbi Moses Maimonides; but of greater interest to our current discussion is another of David's ancestors, Moses' son Abraham (1186-1237), who was arguably the most eminent exponent of the medieval Jewish-Sufi synthesis. Rabbi Abraham Maimonides' treatise Kifayat ul-'Abidin [the compendium for those who serve God] advocated an ideal of sublime piety based on a discipline of mystical communion.

Abraham recommended that Jews adopt some Sufi practices, such as solitary contemplation and mantra-like repetitions of the divine names. To those who charged him with the promotion of un-Jewish ideas, he countered that it was the Sufis who had taken their inspiration from the authentic practices of the ancient Hebrew prophets. In all this, Abraham was solidly convinced that he was being faithfully consistent with his father's philosophy.

The central text of the Kabbalah, the Zohar, contains at least one reference to Sufi practice. It tells, with some measure of admiration, about the people of the east, the inhabitants of the mountains of light, who worship the pre-dawn light that shines before the appearance of the sun. They refer to this light as Allah of the shining pearls.

This expression is taken from the mystical terminology of the Sufis, where the white pearl [al-durra-l-baida] refers to the highest emanation of divine intelligence through which power is channeled into our world: In the beginning God created from his own precious soul a white pearl. Although the Zohar accuses those easterners of directing their adoration to the light and not to the God who created it, it also acknowledges that it is based on an ancient tradition of authentic wisdom.

Possibly the most imposing example of the integration of Kabbalah and Jewish orthodoxy was Rabbi Joseph Karo, the learned compiler of the Shulhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of religious law that is still regarded as the quintessential embodiment of rabbinic Judaism. Though Rabbi Karo was a devotee of the Kabbalah, he rarely allowed his Kabbalistic beliefs to influence his halakhic codification.

Like several of his contemporaries, he was privileged to receive ongoing revelations from a maggid, a supernatural mentor that would take possession of him and speak revelations through his lips. These revelations were recorded in a diary that was later published under the title Maggid Mesharim.

Although Rabbi Karo epitomized the distinctive qualities of Jewish religious learning, even he was not completely insulated from the spiritual currents that were at work in the gentile surroundings; as we discover when we read passages in the Maggid Mesharim.

In at least one place, Karo's Maggid relied on a Sufi tradition. While instructing Karo in the virtues of remaining completely indifferent to the opinions of others, the Maggid said: This secret can be learned from the tale of a wise man, who once addressed a question to a person who was seeking a state of absolute spiritual equanimity. For the truth is that anyone who is not indifferent to the good and bad things of this world has not attained a state of devotion that is purely focused.

This story, which appears in various versions in the writings of the medieval moralists, was introduced to Jewish literature by the eleventh-century philosopher Rabbi Bahya Ibn Paqudah in his Arabic treatise The Duties of the Heart. Bahya explicitly credited the tale to a Sufi source. Indeed, Bahya's central messages--that people waste too much time on the trivial details of daily life (which, for him, included a narrow focus on religious laws and rituals), and not enough on spiritual transformation --was very much in the Sufi spirit.

There is a passage in Rabbi Karo's mystical diary that suggests a more active involvement of Jews with Sufism. The text there describes a stroll that he took with a group of companions. When they passed the entrance to the Tekiya, the companions brought Karo inside to enjoy the ambiance.

A Tekiya, or Tekke, is a meeting place or retreat centre for Sufi meditation; Tekkes are especially common in Turkish mystical schools. Most of them contain walled gardens designed to isolate the occupants from the distractions of the world and to promote a fitting mood for contemplation.

Karo had reason to regret his visit. That night, his Maggid took him to task him for turning to idols and ba'als, a grave sin that resulted in a temporary disruption of the lines of communications between the rabbi and his creator.

It appears that, until this episode, visits to the Tekke had been a common routine for the Safed mystics, who presumably found inspiration in the tranquility of the surroundings. It was only after Rabbi Karo's visit provoked the Maggid's censure that the practice was terminated.

Perhaps those earlier Kabbalists in Safed felt that there exists a state of spiritual elevation in which the differences between religious communities and traditions are less important than the mystic unity that underlies all creation.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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