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Abelson explains how neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Christianity and other currents influenced and were in turn impacted by Jewish mysticism. This is a great backgrounder if you are interested in the Kabbalah or Mysticism at any level.
This book has 79 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1913.
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Excerpt from 'Jewish Mysticism'
IT might strike the average reader as exceedingly odd that any attempt should be made at writing a book on Jewish mysticism. The prevailing opinion--among theologians as well as in the mind of the ordinary man--seems to be that Judaism and mysticism stand at the opposite poles of thought, and that, therefore, such a phrase as Jewish mysticism is a glaring and indefensible contradiction in terms. It is to be hoped that the contents of this little book will show the utter falsity of this view.
What is this view, in the main, based upon? It is based upon the gratuitous assumption that the Old Testament, and all the theological and religious literature produced by Jews in subsequent ages, as well as the general synagogue ritual, the public and private religious worship of the Jew--that all these are grounded on the unquestioning assumption of an exclusively transcendent God. The Jews, it is said, never got any higher than the notion of the old Jehovah whose abode was in the highest of the seven heavens and whose existence, although very very real to the Jew, was yet of a kind so immeasurably far away from the scenes of earth that it could not possibly have that significance for the Jew which the God of Christianity has for the Christian. The Jew, it is said, could not possibly have that inward experience of God which was made possible to the Christian by the life of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.
This is one erroneous assumption. A second is the following: The Pauline anti-thesis of law and faith has falsely stamped Judaism as a religion of unrelieved legalism; and mysticism is the irreconcileable enemy of legalism. The God of the Jew, it is said, is a lawgiver pure and simple. The loyal and conscientious Jew is he who lives in the throes of an uninterrupted obedience to a string of laws which hedge him round on all sides. Religion is thus a mere outward mechanical and burdensome routine. It is one long bondage to a Master whom no one has at any time seen or experienced. All spirituality is wanting. God is, as it were, a fixture, static. He never goes out of His impenetrable isolation. Hence He can have no bond of union with any one here below. Hence, further, He must be a stranger to the idea of Love. There can be no such thing as a self-manifestation of a loving God, no movement of the Divine Spirit towards the human spirit and no return movement of the human spirit to the Divine Spirit. There can be no fellowship with God, no opportunity for any immediate experiences by which the human soul comes to partake of God, no incoming of God into human life. And where there is none of these, there can be no mystical element.
A third false factor in the judgment of Christian theologians upon Judaism is their insistence upon the fact that the intense and uncompromising national character of Judaism must of necessity be fatal to the mystical temperament. Mystical religion does, of course, transcend all the barriers which separate race from race and religion from religion. The mystic is a cosmopolitan, and, to him, the differences between the demands and beliefs and observances of one creed and those of another are entirely obliterated in his one all-absorbing and all-overshadowing passion for union with Reality. It is therefore quite true that if Judaism demands of its devotees that they should shut up their God in one sequestered, watertight compartment, it cannot at the same time be favourable to the quest pursued by the mystic.
But as against this, it must be urged that Judaism in its evolution through the centuries has not been so hopelessly particularist as is customarily imagined. The message of the Old Testament on this head must be judged by the condition of things prevailing in the long epoch of its composition. The message of the Rabbinical literature and of much of the Jewish mediæval literature must similarly be judged. The Jew was the butt of the world's scorn. He was outcast, degraded, incapacitated, denied ever so many of the innocent joys and advantages which are the rightful heritage of all the children of men, no matter what their distinctive race or creed might be. He retaliated by declaring (as a result of conviction), in his literature and in his liturgy, that his God could not, by any chance, be the God of the authors of all these acts of wickedness and treachery. Idolatry, immorality, impurity, murder, persecution, hatred--the workers of all these must perforce be shut out from the Divine presence. Hence seeing that, in the sight of the Jew, the nations were the personification of these detestable vices, and seeing that the Jew, in all the pride of a long tradition, looked upon himself as invested with a spirit of especial sanctity, as entrusted with the mission of a holy and pure priesthood, one can quite easily understand how he came to regard the God of Truth and Mercy as first and foremost his God and no one else's.
But with all this, there are, in all branches of Jewish literature, gleams of a far wider, more tolerant, and universalist outlook. In-stances will be quoted later. The fact that they existed shows that the germs of the universalism implied in mysticism were there, only they were crushed by the dead-weight of a perverse worldly fate. The Jew certainly did, and could, find God in his neighbour (a non-Jew) as well as in himself. And this ability is, and always was, a strong point of the mystics. Further, even if it be granted that there are in Judaism elements of a nationalism which can hardly be made to square with a high spirituality, this is no necessary bar to its possession of abiding and deeply-ingrained mystical elements. Nationalism is an integral and vital part of the Judaism of the Old Testament and the Rabbinical literature. It is bone of its bone, spirit of its spirit. It is so interfused with religion that it is itself religion. You cannot take up the old Judaism and break it up into pieces, saying: Here are its religious elements; there are its national elements. The two are inextricably combined, warp and woof of one texture. And thus it came about that--strange as it may appear to the modern mind--a halo of religious worth and of strong spirituality was thrown over beliefs and practices which, considered in and for themselves, are nothing more than national sentiments, national memories, and national aspirations. Such, then, being the case, the relation of Judaism to Jewish nationalism is the relation of a large circle to the smaller circle inscribed within it. The larger embraces the smaller.
To come now to mysticism; the mystic differs from the ordinary religionist in that whereas the latter knows God through an objective revelation whether in nature or as embodied in the Bible (which is really only second-hand knowledge, mediate, external, the record of other people's visions and experiences), the mystic knows God by contact of spirit with spirit; cor ad cor loquitur. He has the immediate vision; he hears the still small voice speaking clearly to him in the silence of his soul. In this sense the mystic stands quite outside the field of all the great religions of the world. Religion for him is merely his own individual religion, his own lonely, isolated quest for truth. He is solitary--a soul alone with God.