On bringing G-d back to Judaism
“This Atman is Brahman” (Mandukya Upanishad). “Form is empty. Emptiness is form” (Heart Sutra). “This is called the Mystic Unity. Because the wise is unified with all and has no distinction” (Tao The Ching). Simply, “I and the Father are one” (Gospel of John).
I guess that you’ve heard Meister Eckhart say, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Or Rumi famously observe, “I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.”
Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam — mystics of all major spiritual traditions came to the same conclusion. Yet, one important tradition is missing from the list. That tradition is obviously Judaism although its mystical roots appear to be as old as Judaism itself.
The reasons for that omission may become clear if we take a brief look at history of Jewish mysticism and unio mystica in the context of normative Judaism.
It may come as a surprise (it certainly was for me) but, despite the popular belief and considering all the fantastic (dare I say, mystical) stories contained in Tanakh, Jewish mysticism emerged relatively late, only in 1st century CE. This first stage, represented by the Merkavah literature, lasted roughly to 10–12th century CE and “[did] not feature the language of union but concentrate[d] on heavenly ascensions to a vision of the throne of God” (McGinn, 2005).
That may be understandable, because mystical union ultimately culminates in a realization that “I am” precisely that “I AM” referenced in Exodus 3:14, which is something explicitly and unequivocally forbidden in Jerusalem Talmud Taamit 2.1.16 to claim, “Rebbi Abbahu said, if a man says to you, I am a god, he lies. I am the Son of Man, at the end he will regret it.” And since Talmud is instructive in terms of halakha, or Jewish (religious) law, it’s no laughing matter as the penalties can range from excommunication to death.
The latter by all accounts happened to Jesus for his claims of mystical union, the former inarguably happened to e.g. Baruch Spinoza for formulating his pantheistic philosophy of “Deus sive Natura”. These potential threats, however, didn’t prevent the Jewish mystics to push further and examine the “heretic” aspects of knowledge.
“Among the earliest Jewish thinkers who spoke of mystical union was the mid-twelfth-century philosopher Abraham ibn Ezra, who saw Moses’ cleaving to God as a model for the soul’s return to its primordial state of universality” (McGinn, 2005), a theme that was further developed in Kabbalah and later culminated in the composition of Zohar, one of the most impressive Kabbalistic works, that “became a proof text for later mystics” (Ibid.).
“The most extreme formulations of identity mysticism in Qabbalah [then] occur in the writing of Abraham Abulafia in the late thirteenth century [who] unequivocally states that the soul can unite not only with the active intellect but with God Himself, evidently asserting the possibility of the supreme unio mystica” (Idel, 1988, p. 10). In the words of Abulafia, “[If the mystic] has felt the divine touch and perceived its nature it seems right and proper to me and to every perfected man that he should be called “master” because his name is like the Name of his Master be it only in one, or in many, or in all of His Names. For now he is no longer separated from his Master, and behold he is his Master and his Master is he; for he is so intimately united with Him, that he cannot by any means be separated from Him, for he is He” (Ibid.).
“Nevertheless it is fair to say that unitive mysticism was at its strongest in some of the forms of Hasidic mysticism that began in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century and that continue to flourish in the twenty-first century” (McGinn, 2005). This is particularly true for Chabad-Lubavitch and Breslov dynasties.
Still, no Jewish mystic to this day reached mystical union and lived to enjoy the blessings of their Jewish community. It’s obvious, because “even the most powerful proponents of identity language never broke with Jewish halakhic practice” (Ibid.) in fear of possible repercussions, and continue, if nothing else and no matter how lovingly, to segregate people on the basis of Jewishness and gentileness. Yet, unio mystica verifiably removes all such distinctions and differences.
One must obviously ask, then, why that is the case. Why is there no Jewish sage who could be universally regarded as “enlightened”, not merely wise, and who was not killed or excommunicated?
On one side, and quite predictably, it’s the rigidity of normative Judaism with which it clings to its misinterpretations because of tradition. On the other, rather surprisingly, it’s the incompleteness of Kabbalah. To put it in no uncertain terms, no form of Judaism has understanding of the true nature of G-d.
I won’t deal with normative Judaism as that is an enterprise as futile as trying to fix Christian institutionalized religion. Filling in the blanks in Kabbalistic knowledge, however, is a different matter.
According to Judaism, the ultimate most fundamental reality of G-d is essentially unknowable. Kabbalah describes the G-d of this fundamental reality by concepts of nothingness, infinity, and infinite light (or divine will). Creation of something (Yesh) from nothing (Ayin) then takes place when infinity (Ein-Sof) knows itself by its divine will (Ohr Ein-Sof) and contracts itself (Tzimtzum) to create space into which all sefirot from Keter to Malkuth (and all worlds) are continuously emanated. The goal of Kabbalah practitioner is to “travel” this Tree of Life back to Keter where the infinite light of divine will illuminates infinite nothingness. The vehicle for this travel is trance (or meditation) and once the journey is finished, one knows G-d.
Only that one doesn’t.
The reasons are simple, Keter is technically merely a window into one of the lower spheres of formless causal realm which stretches from infinite space, through infinite consciousness (Ohr) and nothingness (Ayin), all the way to the farthest spheres where the perception ends. Thus, since G-d cannot be perceived (as will eventually be realized), while perception of god remains no matter how subtle, it is not G-d. And even if one reaches the sphere where one does not know whether one perceives or not (which can be even more misleading), one has no chance in hell to infer the fundamental (or absolute) nature of reality.
What this exercise does, however, is that it clearly shows that one can travel into any (in)conceivable realm, and one won’t find G-d there, only one’s mind. And this understanding may trigger the wider realization that what is is, and that that existence is uniform.
But still, it says nothing about its nature — is it G-d, world, mind?
To answer the question, and there is no way around it, one must contemplate the nature of one’s “I am”. One must see where it originates, who it denotes. All in the light of uniform existence. Eventually, one realizes that one’s “I am” is identical with (as in one and the same or the very) “I AM” referenced in Exodus. At this point it also becomes clear why G-d cannot be perceived (and thus also named) and yet one sees, hears, breaths G-d all the time. Simply, you will know G-d.
Many may not like it, but I am (truly is) the only way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through “Me”.
What you do with it, is your choice.
Idel, M. (1988). Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah. Albany, N.Y.
McGinn, B. (2005). Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Encyclopedia of Religion. Retrieved December 28, 2021 from: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mystical-union-judaism-christianity-and-islam