Jewish mysticism: Preliminary contexts
The rabbis who wrote in the Talmud and midrash…many of them are what would now be called mystics.
Mystics are those individuals who either were sought out by God/Divine, like the prophets or are people who sought to connect with God/Divine by pray and/or meditation.
The quality of mystical experience was described by William James in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience.
One of the most amazing descriptions of this kind of experience is one that might be familiar. It shaped a later generation's idea of these kinds of experiences. The imagery is potent. The amazing thing is the language used to describe the occurrence. Now that description to me proves that it was a first-hand record of what the person experienced. It doesn’t make sense that someone would make up that language to impress. So often the name associated with the Biblical book is not necessarily the actual author or that someone later added to it. The language of the experience seems to me to guarantee authenticity of at minimum that specific passage.
I am talking about The opening section to the book of Ezekiel:
1: 5 And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. …1:13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like coals of fire, burning like the appearance of torches; 1:14 And the living creature ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
That is just a sampling, but notice the language and the words used. ‘Likeness’, ‘appearance’, and ‘like the appearance of’. There is a hesitancy in the language. There is a description offered but it is a qualified description with an uncertainty that what is being described is what the thing truly looks like. That is a remarkable passage. It is an important passage since it demonstrates that although the one who has the experience is certain of its reality what is seen is felt to be beyond description however there is the compulsion to try. Few have the self-awareness to truly state what it seems to be with such honesty. It is a part of the truth in all mystical experiences that what is later described is done so through the metaphors that are available to the one who had the experience prior to the event.
So, whenever you are reading the writings of a prophet or a mystic, remember the lesson of Ezekiel, it only seems to have the likeness and appearance of. That certainty hides the reality of it being initially beyond description.
Garshom Yaron aka Gary Jaron has been exploring the Occult Qabalah and the Rabbinic Kabbalah since he was a teen.