The story of two mystics [i]
One can observe common features in this monotheistic mystical experience, which differentiate it from oriental spiritualities (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) or ancient spiritualities (Pythagoreanism, Neoplatonism). Indeed, the biblical and Qur’ânic God is interested in humans: He reveals Himself to them, for them, through a revelation. The believers read his intervention in their History. The mystic pushes the stakes of this relationship between the human person and the divine Presence to its extreme point. This encounter is often expressed in terms of reciprocal love between man and God, according to the analogy of human love.
Jewish and Christian mysticism is inspired by biblical texts such as the Song of Songs; Muslim mysticism is expressed in prodigious lyrical poetry in Arabic (Hallâj, d. 922 or Ibn al-Fârid, d. 1235), Persian (Roumi or Eraqi, d. 1289), Turkish (Yunus Emre, 14th century), etc. One will note here the proximity of the symbols in the three religious climates: the intoxication of the beauty of the loved one, the expectation of his presence, and the nostalgia of the separation.
The notion of “mysticism” differs from that of “religion” in that it does not designate a faith and a practice oriented towards the expectation of an afterlife, but the search for an experience of the divine lived in this life. Mysticism has historically manifested itself in the form of remarkable individual journeys of figures of sanctity: one must think, among thousands of others, of those of Baal Shem Tov (18th century) for Hasidism, of John of the Cross (16th century) in Catholicism, or of the Sufi Jalâl ad-Dîn ar-Rûmî (13th century) as an example; but it can also give rise to spiritual currents inspired by such models as Hasidism, Carmelite spirituality, and the Mevlevian brotherhood, to take up again the cases mentioned. These currents have sometimes played a considerable role in the history of the three religions considered.
Jewish mysticism represents, according to Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a Jewish historian and philosopher, a specialist in Jewish mysticism, an attempt to interpret the religious values of Judaism in a mystical way; It focuses on the idea of a living God who manifests himself in the acts of creation, revelation, and redemption. But the attraction of a union with God is diffuse and rare.
There are two manifestations of Jewish mysticism:
- Kabbale (in Hebrew Kabbalah, “tradition” or “reception of tradition”) is a philosophical and religious current focused on the search for the understanding of God and creation. The Zohar (“Book of Splendor”), written in the 13th century by a Spanish rabbi, Moïse de León, is the most important book in the Kabbale.
- Hassidism (in Hebrew Hassidout, “piety” or “integrity”) is a second current, founded in Podolia (a region of Ukraine which, at that time, belonged to Poland) by the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) which, by its requirement of sincerity in piety, quickly spread to central and eastern Europe. It consists of two tendencies: one, popular, which opposes the intellectualism of rabbis and promotes joy in prayer, the other more elitist, which addresses “madmen” ready to let themselves be driven by a guide to heights of holiness. [ii]
Islamic mysticism is embodied in Sufism. The Sufis are dedicated to God through asceticism, chanting, song, dance, and the rumination of the divine names (the dhikr). Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), a Persian Sufi wrote about Sufis:
“They are drowned in pure singularity. Their intellects are bewitched and it is as if they lost the floor. There is no more room left for the memory of something other than him, nor for the thought of themselves. There is only God left in them. It was then that they say the words by which they identify with God. But this union – in reality, this unity -, they discover is provisional.’’
Husayn Ibn Mansûr (Hallâj) (858-922), Ibn Arabi, but also the Persian Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, founder of the Whirling Dervishes, are emblematic figures of Sufism. Hallâj ended up tortured and crucified in a public place in Baghdad in 922 for his paradoxical expressions of God’s desire for a union with Him.
It is interesting to highlight the reciprocal influence between Sufis and Jews in the history of Islam. According to chronological order, it was Judaism that first influenced Sufism during its formation. It goes without saying that after the Arab conquest, the metropolis of Baghdad was a fertile ground for the academies of the Geonim (6th-11th century). [iii] In fact, they undoubtedly directed the Yeshivot of Babylonia, while trying to perfect and spread the teaching of the Talmud. Also, the Geonim shone throughout the Diaspora. It should be noted that in this era, the school of Baghdad (9th-10th century) had to exhibit a very rich milieu of spiritual personalities who, in truth, have given the taṣawwuf (Sufism) the quintessence of its experience.
Take, for example, al-Junayd (830-910) and al-Ḥallāj with whom the term taṣawwuf came to be used in the course of time. The latter roughly represents the spiritual and esoteric dimension of Sunni Islam, even the heart of Islam. In addition, Islamic mysticism has its source in the Qur’ân and in the Prophetic Tradition. It is worth recalling here that the virtue of Muslim mysticism is al-iḥsān (excellence). Yet there is still one particularly important element to consider: the points of convergence between Jewish mysticism and Muslim mysticism. Jewish mysticism represents the esoteric meaning of the Torah. [iv]
In fact, many Jews lived entirely in rabbinic piety and were known as the ḥasīdūt which means “piety” or “integrity,” having as its root in the term “generosity.” In this light, the ḥasīdīm [v] are distinguished by their asceticism and sobriety, and, evidently, just like the early zuhhād of Islam (renouncers). These renounced earthly goods out of a desire for the joy of the Hereafter. One example is Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (641-728), who was a good example to follow in the renunciation of the world. In this, we note that the term zuhhâd consists of characterizing the spirituality of the first two centuries.
It is quite clear that some ḥasīdīm, such as Abbā᾿ Ḥilqiyāh (1st century), and Pinḥās ibn Yā᾿īr (2nd century), considered themselves to be holy thaumaturgists that is, they were distinguished by karāmāt (supernatural favors). As a result, these traits were found in the early Muslim Sufis in the East. Jewish Baghdadi spirituality exerted a preponderant influence on Sufism. It goes without saying that Sufi hagiography preserves certain stories, for example, those of the “pious men of the Children of Israel.’’
On the influence of Sufism on the Jewish religion, Mireille Loubet writes in the Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem: [vi]
‘’Defying the centuries of suspicion and persecution (eighth to eleventh centuries) inflicted on it by the defenders of Muslim orthodoxy, Sufism, the mystical expression of Islam, had been rehabilitated by the famous theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111)5 and spread throughout Egypt, giving rise to religious orders which quickly became powerful brotherhoods destined to endure, the tariqat. The predominance of this spiritual climate reinforced the aspirations of Egyptian Jews to revive the mystical current of Judaism which had already manifested itself in Baghdad, the cradle of Sufism, in the wake of the Arab conquest. It is indeed interesting to note that at that time a certain number of Jews in the Baghdad diaspora were fervent supporters of rabbinic piety, hasidut, and that some of them, known as hasidim, had turned to asceticism, and a way of life that emphasized humility, purity, and trust in God, in order to recover the original spirit of Judaism. The same dispositions also characterized the approach of the first Sufis reported in the Muslim milieu of Baghdad and with whom the “pious” Jews had contacts, as is suggested by some ancient texts reflecting the familiarity of the Jews with Sufism, by the indifferent use, in their writings, of the Arabic terms sufi-tasawwuf and Hebrew hasid-hasidut (Sufi-sufism, pious-pietism).’’
Kabbalah [vii] is another way of looking at Man, the Bible, and the Universe. Kabbalah is a set of metaphysical speculations about God, the Universe, and Man. It has its roots in the esoteric Jewish traditions – the Judaism of Tradition. This definition does not bring out the universality of Kabbalah, the richness of its themes, and the multiple aspects that combine and unite metaphysical observation and reason with symbolism.
Kabbalah can be a tool to help understand the World, in the sense that it encourages one to modify his perception of this World (the “reality”) despite the subjectivity of his perception, which is complicated and increased by the sensitivity of the multiplicity of individuals. [viii]
The Kabbalah is therefore a tool of analysis that helps to understand by providing the “seekers” with a synthetic diagram which includes The Tree of the Sephiroth, a key to reading multiple works, with a wealth of concepts, such as degrees of meaning, contractions, God, the Veils, Pleasure, Evil, the Golem, the Whole and finally the Restoration. [ix]
In this way, sketches of answers to the essential questions of the origin of the Universe and the future of Man are derived. This makes the Kabbalah a real tool for working on oneself and a powerful means of apprehending and approaching other systems of thought, however diverse they may be.
The meaning of the word Kabbalah
All religions have a mystical or esoteric component – direct access to God without a priest and/or a constituted church – but the originality of the Kabbalah lies in its approach to genesis through the mystical path and the path of knowledge. [x]
According to the Brill Dictionary of Religion, the Kabbalah is a theosophical system that was widespread in medieval Judaism from the 10th century onwards, and which subsequently enjoyed great diffusion in the Christian world: [xi]
‘’Kabbalah and Secrecy 1. ‘Kabbalah’ is the term employed by both practitioners and scholars to denote the esoteric lore and practice cultivated by elite rabbinic circles from the Middle Ages to the present. The word itself is derived from a root that means ‘to receive,’ and hence ‘Kabbalah’ signifies in its most basic sense → ‘tradition.’ Needless to say, Kabbalah is not monolithic in nature; on the contrary, it is better described as a collage of disparate doctrines and practices …’’
The word “kabbalah” comes from the Hebrew “qabbalah” which means “tradition”. It designates an esoteric and mystical component of Jewish culture, based on the study of the levels of Being between the human race and God, as well as on the mediations that link these various levels. It is based in particular on a method of interpretation of the Bible based on the numerical transcription of the Hebrew characters (sefira means “number” and has the same root as the Arabic sifr, which in French means “number” and “zero”): like the school of Pythagoras, the Kabbalah gives a mystical value to numbers. [xii]
Kabbalah is a tool to help understand the world in the sense that it encourages to modify perception of the world (what is called “reality” despite the subjectivity of perception). To do this, the Kabbalah provides its followers with a synthetic diagram: The Tree of Life or Tree of the Sephiroth or Sephirotic Tree, and other reading keys for multiple works, as well as a wealth of concepts (degrees of meaning, contraction, etc.). [xiii]
The Tree of Life (Etz haHa’yim עץ – החיים in Hebrew) symbolically represents, in Kabbalah, the laws of the Universe (Some authors bring it closer to the Tree of Life mentioned by Genesis in 2:9) [xiv]. Its description is considered as the cosmogony of Kabbalistic mysticism. [xv]
It proposes answers to the essential questions concerning the origin of the universe, the role of man, and his future. It is both a tool for working on oneself and a means of apprehending other systems of thought. Kabbalah, as a phenomenon, is often understood as the mysticism of the merkabah. [xvi]
In the Hebrew Kabbalah, three meanings can be discovered in each sacred word. Hence three different interpretations of kabbala:
- The first, called “gematria”, involves the analysis of the numerical or arithmetical value of the letters composing the word;
- The second establishes the meaning of each letter considered separately; and
- The third uses certain transpositions of letters.
The Hermetic Kabbalah applies to the books, texts, and documents of the esoteric sciences of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times. It is a real language, and, as the great majority of the didactic treatises of ancient sciences are written in Hebrew, the reader cannot grasp anything if he does not possess at least the first elements of the secret idiom.
This mysticism is presented as access, in an ascending and interior journey, to the very heart of the divine, to the garden of the science of the Book, to the Sod, the fourth term of Forgiveness. It is associated with all that is apocalyptic literature – the Jewish apocalypse. [xvii]
Kabbalah influenced Christians, especially in the Renaissance. But communication between the two cultures was blocked by the hardening of the church during the counter-reform, by the risks of persecution, and also by the fact that the Church has always tried to convert the Jews. [xviii]
Kabbalah, being a mysticism, was considered with suspicion by certain rabbis. But other rabbis have studied it and it has never been condemned by Jewish Orthodoxy. Kabbalah teaching is esoteric. It is in practice impossible for a person who is not of Jewish confession, or who does not know Hebrew, to receive this teaching. Esotericism, digital transcription of texts, and mysticism, that’s what arouse the distrust of rationalists. But any rationalist must know the limits of rationalism.
Cabbalists have a singular point of view on the world and history. They rank in the philosophical current of Neoplatonism but, while it places the material at the lowest level of the “procession of beings“, the kabbalists “hoist the material in the level of the burning intelligence“. Platonic idealism is thus overthrown, the material becoming the “source and primordial reservoir of forms and seeds of all reality“. This metaphysical option allows Judaism to escape idealism.
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[i] En-Nougaoui, Abdellatif. De la kabbale et du soufisme : pour une approche comparative. Thèse de doctorat en Langue, Littérature et Civilisation Juives. Sous la direction de Ephraïm Riveline. Soutenue en 1993 à Paris 8.
Synopsis: In this approach, we have done pioneering work in a field that remains largely unexplored. The points of rapprochement between Kabbalah and Sufism have so far remained allusions and paragraphs scattered in broader works on their subject. We have first of all emphasized the terminological and methodological problems, the socio-historical conditions of the Jewish community in Muslim Spain, and its contribution to the Jewish-Arab culture, before examining some common features. For this purpose, we began by analyzing and presenting the three reference books of the Kabbalah: the Zohar, the Bahir, and the Sefer Yestira. Two striking phenomena in the Kabbalah as in Sufism will attract our attention: the numerical-linguistic dimension and the mixture between mysticism and asceticism. In this regard, we have called upon the names of Abraham Abulafia, Al Ghazali, Saadia Gaon, and Ibn ‘Arabi. We have also emphasized the special contribution of the brothers of the saint. In a continuous journey between the two cultures, we have identified a number of common points to which we draw scientific attention.
[iii] Geonim (plural of גאון Gaon) (Hebrew: גאונים meaning “Excellency”) were the presidents of the two great rabbinical colleges of Sura and Pumbedita, located in ancient Babylonia. They were the accepted spiritual leaders of the Jewish community worldwide in the early medieval era. The Geonim played a prominent role in the transmission and teaching of the Torah and Jewish law. As the heads of Judaism‘s two most important academies of the time, the Geonim decided on issues on which no ruling had been rendered during the earlier period of the Sevora’im. The authority of the Geonim began in 589 C.E. (Hebrew date: 4349) and ended in 1038 C.E. (Hebrew date: 4798) covering a period of nearly 450 years. Maimonides sometimes used the term “Geonim” in an extended sense, to mean “leading authorities,” regardless of the country in which they lived. (https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Geonim)
[iv] Sedgwick, Mark. Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 56.
[v] Berger, Joseph. The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.
[vi] Loubet, Mireille. “Une mystique particulière”, Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, op. cit.
[vii] Halevi, Z’ev ben Shimon. La cabbale. Tradition de connaissance cachée. Paris: Editions du Seuil,1980.
Synopsis: The essential book to understand the Kabbalah in depth. Everything is linked to another, to the lowest ring of the chain, and the true essence of God is above as well as below, in the heavens and on the earth, and nothing n ‘Exist outside of him … When God gave the Torah to the Israelites, he opened the seven heavens to them and they saw that there there was nothing but his glory; He opened the seven worlds (or “lands”) to them and they saw that he had nothing but his glory there; He opened the seven abysses before their eyes, and they saw that there was nothing but his glory there. Meditate on these things and you will understand that the essence of God is linked to all these worlds and that all forms of existence are linked to each other, but derive from existence and essence. (Moses from Léon). This is the vision of the world for those who know God and such will be the universal state produced by the final redemption. This very beautiful book by Léo Schaya is essential for an in-depth understanding of the Kabbalah.
[viii] Schaya, Léo. L’homme et l’absolu selon la kabbale. Paris : Editions Dervy, 1995.
[ix] Dan, Joseph. “Samael, Lilith, and the Concept of Evil in Early Kabbalah”, AJS Review, vol. 5, 1980.
[x] Grad A. – D. Pour comprendre la kabbale. Paris: Editions Dervy, 1999.
Synopsis: Kabbalah occupies a singular place in spiritual life. The very term is rarely taken in its real meaning. He loses all his meaning when everyday language takes place, and philosophers ignore him. The real foundations of the Kabbalah often escape the best minds. We are there in one of the rare areas of thought where confusion reigns to the point of imposing the most frightening caricature. World Authority for Hebrew esotericism, A.-D. Grad set out to write.
[xi] Brill Dictionary of Religions. https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/search?s.f.s2_parent=s.f.book.brill-dictionary-of-religion&search-go=&s.q=Kabbalah
[xii] Pedaya, Haviva. Vision and Speech: Models of Prophecy in Jewish Mysticism. Los Angeles: Cherub Press, 2002, pp. 171–200 [Hebrew]; Fenton, Paul. “Solitary Meditation in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism in Light of Recent Archeological Discovery,” Medieval Encounters 1, no. 2, 1995, p. 285 & Idel, Moshe. “Ecstatic Kabbalah and the land of Israel,” in Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah. Albany: the State University of New York Press, 1988, p. 93.
[xiii] Sibony, Daniel. Lectures bibliques : Premières approches. Paris : Odile Jacob, 2005, p. 339.
Genesis 2:9, New International Version
9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
[xv] The Tree of Life (Etz haHa’yim עץ החים in Hebrew) symbolically represents, in Kabbalah, the laws of the Universe (some authors bring it closer to the tree of life mentioned by Genesis in 2:9). Its description is considered to be the cosmogony of Kabbalistic mysticism.
Some commentators consider that the Tree of Life is a Hebrew adaptation of symbols already present among ancient peoples. Indeed, we find in Egypt the sacred sycamore tree as well as the pillar Djed, playing an important role in Egyptian esotericism. Other Trees of Life existed for example in the Mesopotamian tradition in Elam with strong cosmogonic resonances. The same perception has taken root under different names in various cultures: the Tree of Life is called the Aśvattha in India, the Bo Tree or the ficus religiosa of the Buddhists, the Ash tree, Yggdrasil of the Nordic peoples, the original Asherah of the Assyrians, the Java-Aleim (Jahva Alhim declined into Hebrew later) of the Chaldean cabbalistic tradition1 .
The fact remains that the Kabbalistic Tree of Life proceeds in all respects from Jewish cosmology and that the philological, semantic, and metaphysical processes of its elaboration do not in any way belong to the above-mentioned traditions. The essence of the Kabbalistic doctrine relating to the Sephirotic Tree is indeed to be found in the midrashic literature, especially that dating from the end of the Second Temple period, for which the Zohar offers a complete synthesis.
[xvi] The merkabah (or merkavah) is a Hebrew term meaning chariot (from the root R – K – B meaning to ride). It is one of the oldest themes of Jewish mysticism. For the mystic, it is a question of reaching the contemplation of God’s heavenly throne.
[xviii] Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. ‘’Kabbalah: A Medieval Tradition and Its Contemporary Appeal’’, History Kompass, volume 6, issue 2, March 2008, pp. 552-587. https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00501.x