Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism

A true Jewish mystic doesn’t need to use hype or self-promotion like  Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s snake-oil charms. Any self-respecting Kabbalist shouldn’t live for the next photo-op.

Martin Buber has always been a great inspiration to me. His views on Jewish mysticism are grounded in the interpersonal realm of the ethical. We meet God when we respect the Other who is before us. Emmanuel Levinas expresses a similar thought in many of his writings as well, but Buber still remains my favorite.

Historically, people have often tried to control God through any kind of magical means at their disposal. The scriptural prohibition against making graven images is predicated upon the belief that man can control God; only in one’s imagination is such an absurd thought possible. Buber touches on this theme in a number of different works, but in the interest of time, I will cite one of my favorite quotes Buber is best known for concerning the danger of gnosis and magic that I think cuts to the heart of our problem today among certain types of hucksters like Rabbi Batzri.

“The two spiritual powers of gnosis and magic, masquerading under the cloak of religion, threaten more than any other powers the insight into the religious reality, into man’s dialogical situation. They do not attack religion from the outside; they penetrate into religion, and once inside it, pretend to be its essence. Because Judaism has always had to hold them at bay and to keep separate from them, its struggle has been largely internal. This struggle has often been misunderstood as a fight against myth. But only an abstract-theological monotheism can do without myth, and may even see it as its enemy; living monotheism needs myth, as all religious life needs it, as the specific form in which its central events can be kept safe and lastingly remembered and incorporated.

Israel first confronted gnosis and magic   in its two great neighboring cultures: gnosis, the perception of the knowable mystery, in the Babylonian teaching about the stars whose power holds all earthly destinies in control, a teaching which was later to reach its full development in the Iranian doctrine concerning the world-soul imprisoned in the cosmos; and magic,  the perception of the masterable mystery, in the Egyptian doctrine that death can be conquered and everlasting salvation attained by the performance of prescribed formulas and gestures. The tribes of Jacob could only become Israel by disentangling themselves from both gnosis and magic.  He who imagines that he knows and holds the mystery fast can no longer face it as his “Thou”; and he who thinks that he can conjure and utilize it, is unfit for the venture of true mutuality . . . ” [1]

In another passage, we discover why the principle of the I and Thou offers the best approach to experiencing a spiritual connectedness with the Divine that goes infinitely farther than the banalization of Kabbalah we are witnessing today. While I am not completely sure whether Buber’s argument on gnosis is quite accurate, but I do think his understanding on magic and its relationship to Torah is right on the money. Buber explains further:

“This universal at-onement finds expression in the Jewish concept of yihud, or unification. Yihud is the proclamation of the oneness of God — not the passive acknowledgment of this oneness, a statement of a subject about an object, but an act of meeting, ‘the dynamic form of the divine unity itself.’ It does not take place through creedal profession or magic manipulation, but through the concrete meeting of I and Thou by which the profane is sanctified and the mundane hallowed. It is ‘the continually renewed confirmation of the unity of the Divine in the manifold nature of His manifestations.’ This confirmation must be understood in a quite practical way: it is brought about through man’s remaining true ‘in the face of the monstrous contradictions of life, and especially in the face of . . . the duality of good and evil.’ The unification which thus takes place ‘is brought about not to spite these contradictions, but in a spirit of love and reconciliation . . .’



[1] Martin Buber and Will Herberg (ed.)  The Writings of Martin Buber (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 261-262.

[2] Maurice S. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 2002), 167.

One thought on “Authentic Mysticism vs. McMysticism

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” had a profound influence on me personally and is one of 11 books on Judaism in my book “the greatest achievement in life,” on comparative mysticism among the five major religions.

    Others I would recommend: “The Essential Kabblah,” by Daniel Matt; “God is a Verb,” by David Cooper; “Jewish Mystical Testimonies,” by Louis Jacobs; “Kabbalah / The Mystic Quest,” by David Ariel; Kabbalah / New Perspectives,” by Mose Idel; Kabbalah / The Way of…,” by Perle Epstein; “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism,” by Gershom Scholem; “Meditation and the Kabbalah,” by Aryeh Kaplan; “Sacred Therapy,” by Estelle Frankel; and “The Work of the Kabbalist,” by Shimon Halevi.

    Each takes a very different approach to understanding the mystical teachings fo Judaism. I suggest staying away from books by the Berg family of the Kabbalah Centre here in Los Angeles.

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