Claimed portrait of Israel ben Eliezer, founder of Hasidism
Claimed portrait of Israel ben Eliezer, founder of Hasidism

Religious mysticism, in general, involves the pursuit of a sense of unity with the Divine, an altered sense of perception through which the hidden spiritual nature of the universe can be accessed and experienced.  Jewish mysticism undertakes a similar pursuit, but over its several thousand years of development it has taken on the significant additional goal of affecting the very nature of the Godhead.  The Jewish mystic seeks not merely to become one with God, but to join together with the Creator to contribute to the repair of a world that is seen to be broken and in need of redemption.

The first recorded instances of Jewish mysticism come from the second century CE.  Most mystics of this time period strove to re-create and expand upon visions of the Divine in biblical books such as Ezekiel and Song of Songs, in order to gain access to the heavenly realms.  A few others chose to delve into the process of Creation.  It was from among this second group that a book eventually emerged (sometime between the third and sixth centuries CE) that would serve as a foundation for all subsequent mystical thought.  It was called Sefer Yetzirah, or The Book of Formation, and its anonymous author claimed that the Creation was achieved through the manipulation of the ten numbers and twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The ten numbers are referred to as the Sefirot (Hebrew for ciphers), a term that would eventually take on deep significance within the Jewish mystical tradition.

The next major development in Jewish mysticism occurred in the second half of the twelfth century, in northern Spain and southern France, with the advent of the Kabbalah movement.  The mystics within this movement transformed the ten Sefirot of Sefer Yetzirah into a complex and interlinked set of divine characteristics.  The Kabbalistic view of God remained monotheistic, and thus did not stray beyond mainstream Judaism’s firm boundaries on that theological point.  However, the Deity was understood to possess complex dualities of energy and even gender among its various “emanations.”  With the advent of this line of thought, the goal of Jewish mysticism expanded beyond the mere quest to gain a glimpse of God, and began to focus on achieving a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of the Divine.

The most fully developed Kabbalistic description of the internal complexity of the Godhead (a term referring to the abstract, essential nature of the Divine) comes from Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Splendor), written by Moses de Leon in the late thirteenth century (although he claimed it had been authored by the second-century sage Simeon bar Yokhai).  This book organizes the ten Sefirot, understood to be manifestations of different aspects of the nature of God, into a figure of interwoven connections known as the “Tree of Life.”  Each Sefirah represents a different characteristic of God, and is associated with a part of the body, a color, and one of the names of the Holy One.  (For a delineation of the ten Sefirot as described in the Zohar, see The Tree of Life section of this guide.) These aspects are arranged in a hierarchy of accessibility, ranging from the infinite, unknowable Eyn Sof to the Malkhut (or Shechina), which represents God’s presence as it is experienced by man.

The next major figure to contribute to the gradually developing mystical understanding of the Divine was sixteenth-century Rabbi Isaac Luria.  Although he shared his ideas with only a dozen or so followers before his early death and left behind no writings, by the seventeenth century his teachings were widespread and central to traditional Jewish thought.  He pointed out that an infinite Almighty would need to remove or exile itself from a portion of the universe in order to produce an empty space in which Creation could occur.  Luria then envisioned an outpouring of Divine light from the Godhead into this empty space: into vessels taking the shape of the ten Sefirot

However, Luria believed that these vessels had been too fragile to contain the perfection of such holy illumination, resulting in the “shattering” of the lower seven vessels.  Those forces that had resisted Creation and caused the shattering (shevirah) became the forces of evil in the world; they lacked the power to survive on their own and relied on access to the sparks of Divine light that had fallen into the lower realms during the shevirah.  Through this idea, Lurianic Kabbalah connected Jewish mysticism with Jewish ethics, presenting the possibility that humans should strive not only to experience and understand God, but could indeed partner with God in the ongoing process of the universe’s redemption.  Humanity’s task was to raise the holy sparks out of the control of the forces of evil and back into the upper world through the performance of mitzvot, or good deeds—thus participating in the tikkun olam, the process of repairing the world.

This process would be given further attention during the mid-eighteenth century emergence of yet another Jewish mystic with an influential perspective on the relationship between God and man.  His name was Israel ben Eliezer (widely known as the Baal Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name), and he founded the Hasidic movement.  Hasidic mysticism emphasized a joyful approach to life and sincere, devoted focus in worship and prayer.  Many Hasidim engage in ecstatic dance in an effort to forget themselves and become attuned to the presence of God.  Israel ben Eliezer considered God to be present in all things, and a spark of the Divine to exist even in the midst of great evil.  He thus believed that evil was to be not only overcome, but uplifted, corrected, and cleansed.  Even the smallest and most mundane act was thought to have spiritual consequences, and so the Hasidic leader, or tzaddik, was given authority over the worldly as well as the spiritual matters in the lives of his congregants.

The impact of Jewish mysticism continues even to the present day.  Hasidic groups are still in existence throughout the world, and study of the Kabbalah has come into renewed vogue in recent years.  Perhaps the most significant effect of the historical development of Jewish mysticism, however, has been the way that mystical understandings of the nature of God and the role of humanity have come to permeate Jewish thought and practice on a more general level.  Guided by the developments in mystical thought over the past several thousand years, the quest for a deeper connection to the Divine continues, and will likely do so for centuries if not millennia to come.