Mystical

Last week when I was visiting Jerusalem I stayed at Beit Belgia, the Faculty Club on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. I wanted to check a map of Jerusalem, and since I did not have one in my room I consulted a book about Jerusalem that was in the room for visitors. It was about 10 years old and evidently had not been used for years. As I was looking for a map in the book, a group of reference cards slipped out of it. There were 6 of them and on the back of each was written a short paragraph. By arranging them I was able to come up with a coherent sequence on the subject of “mysticism.”

Like most other people when I was young I searched for a pure system of belief, and I discovered mysticism. At the time it had some attraction for me (the world in a flower and stuff like that), but then I became a scientist and a rationalist and I abandoned it.

This is what the cards said:

We shall start from the assumption that a mystic insofar as he participates actively in the religious life of a community, does not act in the void. It is sometimes said, to be sure, that mystics with their personal stirrings for faith, live outside of and above the historical level, that their experience is unrelated to historical experience. Some admire this ahistorical orientation, others condemn it as a fundamental weakness of mysticism, Be that as it may,

“…what is of interest to the history of religions is the mystic’s impact on the historical world, his conflict with the religious life of his day and with his community.”

No historian can say – nor is it his business to answer such questions – whether a given mystic in the course of his individual religious experience actually found what he was so eagerly looking for. What concerns us here is not the mystic’s inner fulfillment. But, if we wish to understand the specific tension that often prevailed between mysticism and religious authority, we shall do well to recall certain basic facts concerning mysticism.

The Jewish mysticism of recent centuries has brought forth the ‘hidden saint’ (nistar), an enormously impressive type with a profound appeal for the common. According to a tradition that goes back to Talmudic times there are, in every generation, 36 righteous men who are the foundations of the world. If the anonymity, which is part of their nature, would be broken, they would be nothing.

On of them is perhaps the Messiah, and he remains hidden only because the age is not worthy of him. Especially among the Hasidim of Eastern Europe, generations spun endless legends about these most obscure of men, whose acts, because they are so entirely beyond the ken of the community, are free from the ambiguities inseparable from all public action. In a truly sublime sense the ‘hidden saint’ makes religion a private affair, and because he is by definition barred from communication with other men, he is unaffected by the problems involved in all dealings with society.

Rabbi Pinhas of K., a Hasidic mystic, expressed this with the utmost precision when he articulated the formula:

“A mystic is a man who has been favored with an immediate, and to him real, experience of the divine. His experience may come to him through sudden illumination, or it may be the result of long and often elaborate preparations.”

These were probably the lost notes of a visiting graduate student or researcher. But, I could not escape the feeling that this was an anonymous message to me. After all, visiting Jerusalem is not supposed to be a trip to an ordinary city.

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