RJ Fall 2000

What 9-Letter Word Has Been Deleted from Reform Teachings?*
*Mysticism -- and it's time to correct that mistake.

by Lawrence Kushner

A few years ago, while giving a lecture on Jewish spirituality, I cited several kabbalistic sources. Afterwards, a woman approached me. "Rabbi," she said, "how can you be a mystic? I thought you were a Reform Jew." For her, "Reform Jewish mystic" was an oxymoron.

It is true that the words "mystic" and "Reform Jew" rarely appear together. But that may tell us more about where we Reform Jews have been than about where we are going. Contrary to some widespread misconceptions, Reform Judaism and mysticism are perfectly compatible. In principle, Reform Judaism is no more and no less "mystical" than Conservative Judaism or Black Hat Orthodoxy. (There are Orthodox Jews who detest mysticism even more than they detest Reform!) Mysticism is an approach to religious life, a way of performing and making sense out of a religious tradition; it is not a set of specific religious practices. I frustrate many seekers by informing them that there is no way to "do" Kabbala without first mastering classical Judaism.

A mystic believes that, beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden divine unity. Just beyond the radar screens of our five senses, all being is one luminous organism. Religion is a system of sacred word and gesture designed to increase the likelihood we will remember that it's all one, or, as we Jews say, God is One (or as the Hasidim used to say, "It's all God").

Consider the alternative: that reality is only what you can see and that nothing is connected to anything else; that everything in life is governed by chance, happenstance, a roll of the dice; or, for those who believe in God's existence, that God is only involved in some things but not every thing. No, for a mystic, God is not only involved in everything, God is everything. God is the ocean and we are the waves. The goal and the challenge of the mystic is to be ever conscious of that awesome reality.

We all experience fleeting glimmers of this ultimate truth -- when we're with people we love and with ones we don't, during solitary walks in the forest and while caught in rush-hour traffic, in the market or at a funeral. These little epiphanies make us grateful to be human, and they also invariably make us want to be better people. There's no way to know exactly when these garden-variety mystical moments will occur. They last for only a moment or two and then, in the twinkling of an eye, they're gone. No spiritual fireworks, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Handel's Hallelujah chorus -- just a fleeting reminder that everything is connected, that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, something that overrides all our carefully laid plans.

Throughout Jewish history, this yearning to experience and comprehend the unity within all creation has found myriad expressions: from Sinai and the psalms of the Hebrew Bible to the teachings of mainstream mystical talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiba. It exploded again with the appearance of the Zohar in thirteenth-century Spain and with Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed three hundred years later. It reappeared in the Hasidic revival of the eighteenth century and continues all the way up to the nascent spiritual revival of our own day. Each one of these flowerings of the Jewish mystical imagination has added to Judaism its own overlay of imagery, vocabulary, and rituals. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to find any aspect of Jewish life which has not incorporated mystical elements. Gershom Scholem, one of the great historians of our generation, has observed that, for centuries, the average Jew on the street probably knew more Zohar than Talmud! From Lecha dodi (a mystical hymn) in the Sabbath eve liturgy to the tikkun olam (of Lurianic Kabbalah), a cornerstone of political action, the influence of our mystical heritage is ubiquitous.

Balancing Rationalism and Mysticism

But, if this is so, then why do so many of us still suspect that a "Reform Jewish mystic" is an oxymoron? Why has liberal Judaism effectively expunged most, if not all, references to our mystical tradition? It is hardly mentioned in our religious school textbooks. It is rarely taught even to rabbinic students. Why do Jewish seekers often think they would do better searching out the mysticism of Eastern religions or enrolling in questionable, quick-fix Kabbalah enterprises rather than looking in the temple library?

The answer, in part, can be found in our Movement's origins. Liberal Judaism is the child of German rationalism. We proudly trace our roots to Immanuel Kant and not, for instance, to the Hasidic master Yehuda Aryeh Lieb of Ger, a towering intellect, prolific writer, and mystic. Our liberal predecessors dismissed Eastern European Jewish mysticism as unenlightened, irrational, and superstitious. This bias is plainly evident, for example, in the writings of Abraham Idelsohn (47), the great German-trained liturgist, who asserted that "in its very essence, mysticism is a negation of life, an escape from its realities and hardships"[!] And Heinrich Graetz, arguably the nineteenth century's most influential historian, described Hasidism (the last great flowering of Jewish mysticism) as: "a daughter of darkness...born in gloom, [that] even today proceeds stealthily on its mysterious way." Lest there be any doubt about his assessment, this teacher of our teachers put it bluntly: "Mysticism and madness are contagious."

We now suspect that our German rationalist predecessors were perhaps too overzealous in their blanket condemnation. We understand that rationalism without mysticism is sterile. Mysticism is not escapist and madness, but an essential and vital ingredient of a mature and balanced Jewish worldview.

Many Jews believe that mysticism connotes renouncing the world and ethical disinterest. While that may be true of some varieties of Eastern mysticism, such thinking has never found a home among the majority of Jews. Far from ignoring the world, Jewish mystics embrace all creation as a manifestation of the Divine. For mystics, the task is to find God's presence everywhere and then act in such a way as to help others find it too. Ethical behavior is inseparable from and, indeed, a central expression of the Jewish mystical enterprise. We have only to consider the courageous political activism of such contemporary mystical giants as Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935), the chief rabbi of Palestine, who fought tirelessly for the inclusion of all Jews in the Zionist dream -- including liberals and even secularists; or Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972), who marched for civil rights at the side of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Indeed, the definitive manuals of Jewish ethical discipline, Mesillat Yesharim by Moses Hayim Luzzatto (d. 1746) and the Shulhan Arukh by Joseph Karo (d. 1575), were written by practicing Kabbalists!

The Jewish choice is not between rationalism or mysticism, logic or spirituality; it is a combination of these two religious realms. Just as early Reform's categorical rejection of all ritual as superstitious resulted in an antiseptic cerebralism, so, too, does the renunciation of anything mystical deprive us of poetry and mystery. Indeed, without this mystical dimension, the Reform Judaism of our own generation is impoverished and tepid. Core religious experience is beyond words and reason. That doesn't mean that it's anti-rational, spaced out, or navel contemplating, but merely that the numinous transcends logic. To put it bluntly, if you can explain it, it ain't God.

Reform Judaism's Emerging Mystical Metaphors

Permit me a few ancient, mystical metaphors that seem to have reappeared in Reform Judaism and hold high promise.

Probably the best known comes from the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, who promulgated a daring creation legend: God underestimated the creative power of the divine light. The vessels God had prepared to receive the light shattered, leaving a world of brokenness, husks, and shards. The primordial light remains trapped, imprisoned within. The task -- indeed the purpose -- of humanity is to repair creation, to free the sparks and literally put the world back together. This is called tikkun olam. It is much more than mere political action (although that is an indispensable element); it involves virtually everything a Jew does. Through the performance of mitzvot, we are able to fix the world.

This brings us to a second and equally mystical metaphor: what we do in this world affects heaven. Our actions have cosmic significance. Mitzvot -- even the mitzvot we do not yet understand -- are not merely good deeds, or even divine obligations; they change the very workings of the universe. In the words of the Kabbalists, "From awakening below comes awakening on high."

We Reform Jews share a growing sense today that the Torah--once only a document of enlightened reason -- is, even more importantly, also an accurate manifestation of ultimate awareness. This is certainly not fundamentalism. (The Zohar itself says that the stories in the Torah could not possibly be about what they seem to be about, otherwise we could write better stories ourselves!) Rather, we are now beginning to understand that to call Torah sacred means that it is a uniquely potent mechanism for comprehending the very infrastructure of being. We may not be able to see it, but in the words of Proverbs, "she really is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her." Or, to put it another way, there is more God in Torah than anyone can fathom. According to the Kabbalists, the messiah will teach us how to pronounce the entire Torah as one long name of God.

This, in turn, leads us to another classical mystical idea: there's more to reality than meets the eye. Realty is layered, concealing myriad interrelationships and meanings. The Kabbalists went so far as to try symbolically to diagram reality or, as it were, the divine psyche itself. They envisioned a sefirotic tree (a diagram with ten circles). We today are more comfortable with the double helix of DNA or the unified field theory of modern physics, but they're all fundamentally the same: one awesomely integrated organism.

We ask ourselves, how much God is in the world? Most of us were raised to believe that God resides beyond this world, trying benevolently (though not always successfully) to run it. In such a model, some things, some places, and some times are without the divine presence; evil, for instance, has nothing whatsoever to do with God. Mystics reject this view, insisting that God is everywhere and all the time. That doesn't mean mystics don't rail against injustice or try to make things better. But it does mean that even when they can't discern the presence of the divine, mystics remain stubbornly convinced that God--the source, the ground, the font of all being--is somehow present. God is the ocean and we are the waves. Shema Yisrael, Hear O' Israel: Adonai our God, Adonai is One!

For Further Reading

Lawrence Kushner, HUC-JIR class of 1969, the author of The Way into the Jewish Mystical Tradition (Jewish Lights) and ten other books on Jewish mysticism and spirituality, is rabbi-in-residence at HUC-JIR in New York.




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