Religious Authority & Mysticism
It is sometimes said that mystics, with their personal striving for transcendence, 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 religion is not the mystic’s inner fulfillment but his impact on the historical world, his conflict with the religious life of his day and with his community. If, however, we wish to understand this tension that has often prevailed between mysticism and religious authority, we need to recall certain basic facts about mysticism.
A mystic is a man who has been favored with an immediate, and to him real, experience of the divine, of ultimate reality, or who at least strives to attain such experience. It may come to him through sudden illumination, or it may be the result of long and often elaborate preparations. From a historical point of view, the mystical quest for the divine takes place almost exclusively within a prescribed tradition—the exceptions seem to be limited to modern times, with their dissolution of all traditional ties. Where such a tradition prevails, a religious authority, established long before the mystic was born, has been recognized by the community for many generations. This authority has been developed through an interchange between the community and those individuals who have interpreted its fundamental experience and so helped the community to express itself—who in a manner of speaking have made it articulate. There is then a scale of values that has been taken over from tradition; there is also a group of doctrines and dogmas, which are accepted as authentic statements concerning the community’s religious experience; and there is in addition a body of rites and customs through which the values of religious life are transmitted and its mood and rhythm expressed.
Very different media can be invested with this authority. They may be impersonal in character, like a sacred book, or distinctly personal—in Catholicism, for example, it is the Pope who has the last word in deciding what is compatible with the Catholic tradition. There may also be mixtures and combinations of the two types, or authority may reside in the consensus of an assembly of priests or other religious persons, even where—as in Islam—the assembly need not actually meet in order to formulate or lend weight to its decisions.
A mystic operates within the context of such traditional institutions and authority. If he accepts the context and makes no attempt to change the community, if he has no interest in sharing his novel experience with others and finds his peace in solitary immersion in the divine—then there is no problem, for there is nothing to bring him into conflict with others. There have assuredly been obscure mystics of this kind in all religions. The Jewish mysticism of recent centuries, in any case, has brought forth the “hidden saint” (nistar), an enormously impressive type with a profound appeal for the common people. According to a tradition that goes back to Talmudic times, there are in every generation thirty-six righteous men who are the foundations of the world. If the anonymity, which is part of their very nature, were broken, they would be nothing. One 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, later generations spun endless legends about these most obscure of men, whose acts, because they are performed so entirely beyond the ken of the community, are free of the ambiguities inherent in 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.
But let us make no mistake. Inestimable as may be the worth of these mute, anonymous saints, the history of religions is not concerned with them. It is concerned with what happens when men attempt to enter into communication with each other. And it is generally recognized that in the case of mystics such communication presents a problem. From a historian’s point of view, the sum of religious phenomena known as mysticism consists in the attempts of mystics to communicate their “ways,” their illuminations, their experience, to others. And it is in the course of these attempts that mysticism comes to grips with religious authority.
It has been said that mystics are always striving to put new wine into old bottles—just what a famous passage in the Gospels warns us not to do. It seems to me that this formulation is strikingly apt and of the utmost relevance. How can a mystic be a conservative, a champion and interpreter of religious authority? How is he able to do what the great mystics of Catholicism, Sufis like Ghazzali, and most of the Jewish Kabbalists did? The answer is that these mystics seem to rediscover the sources of traditional authority. Perceiving the ancient foundations of this authority, they have no desire to change it. On the contrary, they try to preserve it in its strictest sense.
The conservative function of mysticism is made possible by the fact that mystical experience has two aspects. In itself, it is fundamentally amorphous. The more intensely and profoundly the contact with God is experienced, the less susceptible it is of objective definition, for by its very nature it transcends the categories of subject and object which every definition presupposes. On the other hand, such experience can be interpreted in different ways—that is, clothed in different meanings. The moment a mystic tries to clarify his experience by reflection, to articulate it, and especially when he attempts to communicate it to others, he cannot help imposing a framework of conventional symbols and ideas upon it. To be sure, there is always some part of it that he cannot adequately and fully express. But if he does try to communicate his experience—and it is only by doing so that he makes himself known to us—he is bound to interpret his experience in a language, in images and concepts, that were created before him.
Because mystical experience as such is formless, there is in principle no limit to the forms it can assume. At the beginning of their journey, mystics tend to describe their experience in forms drawn from the world of perception. At later stages, corresponding to different levels of consciousness, the world of nature recedes, and these “natural” forms are gradually replaced by specifically mystical structures. Nearly all the mystics known to us describe such structures as configurations of lights and sounds. At still later stages, as the mystic’s experience progresses toward the ultimate formlessness, these structures (in which the symbols of the traditional religious authority play a prominent part) dissolve in their turn.
The theology and symbols of the religious authority under which the mystic lives, then, are projected into his mystical experience, but do not spring from it.1 Mysticism, however, has another, contrasting, aspect: precisely because a mystic is what he is, precisely because he stands in a direct, productive relationship to the object of his experience, he transforms the content of the tradition in which he lives. He contributes not only to the conservation of the tradition, but also to its development. Seen with new eyes, the old values acquire a new meaning, even where the mystic had no intention of giving them a new meaning or was not even aware of doing anything new. Indeed, a mystic’s understanding and interpretation of his own experience may even lead him to question the religious authority he had hitherto supported.
For the same experience, which in one case makes for a conservative attitude, can in another case foster a diametrically opposite attitude. A mystic may substitute his own opinion for that prescribed by authority, precisely because his opinion seems to stem from the very same authority. This accounts for the revolutionary character of certain mystics and of the groups who accept the symbols in which such mystics have communicated their experience.
Occasionally a revolutionary mystic has laid claim to a prophetic gift and asserted a prophetic function in his efforts to reform his community. But can prophetic revelation and mystical experience be identified? The medieval philosophy of both the Arabs and the Jews tends to support the view that they can—so puzzling, not to say indigestible, did the phenomenon of Biblical prophecy seem to those schooled in the systematic thinking of the Greeks. Prophecy as it was originally understood, however, is something entirely different from mysticism. While the prophet hears a clear message and sometimes beholds an equally plain vision (which he also remembers clearly), the mystic’s experience is by its very nature indistinct and inarticulate. Indeed, it is precisely the indefinable, incommunicable character of mystical experience that is the greatest barrier to our understanding of it. It cannot be simply and completely translated into sharp images or concepts, and often it defies any effort to supply it—even afterward—with positive content. Though many mystics have attempted such “translation,” have tried to lend their experience form and body, the center of what a mystic has to say always remains a shapeless experience, spurring the mystic on to his understanding of his religious world and its values. And it is this dialectic which determines his relation to the religious authority and lends it meaning.
The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience. In extreme cases, they may claim to be above all authority, a law unto themselves. The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation—a fact which enables us to understand the borderline case of the nihilistic mystic. All other mystics try to find the way back from the inner mystical upheaval to form, which is also the way to the community; the nihilistic mystic alone, because in his experience the breakdown of all form becomes a supreme value, tries to preserve this formlessness in an undialectic spirit instead of taking it, like other mystics, as an incentive to build up new form. Here all religious authority is destroyed in the name of authority: here we have the revolutionary aspect of mysticism in its purest state.
In examining the relation between mysticism and religious authority, it is particularly instructive to look at what happens when the authority is set forth in holy scriptures, in documents bearing a character of revelation. What happens in such cases is briefly this: the sacred text loses its shape and takes on a new one for the mystic: the hard, clear, unmistakable word of revelation becomes filled with infinite meaning for him. The word which claims the highest authority is opened up, as it were, to receive the mystic’s experience. Rabbi Phineas of Koretz, a Hasidic mystic, expressed this with the utmost precision when he translated the formula Rabbi Shim’on patah (“Rabbi Simeon opened [his lecture] with the verse of Scripture”; it is with these words that Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s mystical exegeses and lectures are introduced in the Zohar) literally as “Rabbi Simeon opened the verse of Scripture.”
For the mystic, the holiness of the texts resides precisely in their susceptibility to such metamorphosis. The word of God must be infinite, or to put it another way, the absolute word is in itself meaningless, yet is pregnant with meaning. Under human eyes it enters into significant finite embodiments which mark innumerable layers of meaning. Thus mystical exegesis, this new revelation imparted to the mystic, has the character of a key. The key itself may be lost, but an immense desire to look for it remains alive. In a day when such mystical impulses seem to have dwindled to the vanishing point, they still retain an enormous force in the work of Franz Kafka. And so they did seventeen centuries ago among the Talmudic mystics. In his commentary on the Psalms, Origen quotes a “Hebrew” scholar, presumably a member of the Rabbinic Academy in Caesarea, as saying that the Holy Scriptures are like a large house with many, many rooms, and that outside each door lies a key—but it is not the right one. To find the keys that will open the doors—that is the great and arduous task. This story, dating from the height of the Talmudic era, may give an idea of Kafka’s deep roots in the tradition of Jewish mysticism. The rabbi whose metaphor so impressed Origen (he calls it “very ingenious”) still possessed the Revelation, but he knew that he no longer had the right key, and was engaged in looking for it. Another formulation of the same idea is frequent in the books of the Lurianic Kabbalah: every word of the Torah has six-hundred-thousand “faces,” that is, layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and decipher it. Thus, each man has his own unique access to Revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakable “meaning” of the divine communication, but in its infinite capacity for taking on new forms.
This mystical approach to Scripture, however, embraces two clearly discernible attitudes—the one conservative, and the other revolutionary. The conservatives recognize the eternal validity of the historical facts recorded in books like the Torah or the Koran. Precisely because they preserve these foundations of the traditional authority for all time, they are able to treat Scripture with the almost unlimited freedom that never ceases to amaze us in the writings of, for example, Meister Eckhart, the author of the Zohar, or the great Sufi mystics—a freedom even to despair, as in the metaphor of the wrong keys.
As for the revolutionaries, they too may recognize the religious authority of the sacred book, but unlike the conservatives, they cast aside the literal meaning of the text, regarding it as simply nonexistent or as valid only for a limited time, and replacing it by a mystical interpretation.
The history of Judaism provides a classical example of each of these two possible attitudes toward the sacred texts; both occurred after the establishment of the Biblical canon. I am referring to the authors of the exegetic texts in the Dead Sea scrolls, probably dating from the pre-Christian era, and to Paul. It is not yet certain whether the Dead Sea scrolls should be regarded as mystical in the strictest sense. But if it should turn out that the leaders of this sect were mystics (and not merely conservative reformers), this literature will provide an excellent example—indeed, the oldest known example—of a conservative attitude toward the sacred text, accompanied by the greatest freedom of exegesis. Even if the hymns which express the personal religion of this community (or perhaps of one of its leaders) derive their ultimate inspiration from mystical illumination, the world they reflect remains entirely within the frame of the traditional authority; the exegesis is strictly conservative even when it actually transforms the authority. There can be no question of an abrogation of the authority; the aim is rather to restore it in all its harshness.
It is very different with Paul, the most outstanding example known to us of a revolutionary Jewish mystic. Paul had a mystical experience which he interpreted in such a way that it shattered the traditional authority. But since he did not wish to forego the authority of the Holy Scriptures altogether, he was forced to declare that it was limited in time and only now abrogated. A purely mystical exegesis of the old words replaced the original frame and provided the foundation of the new authority which Paul felt called upon to establish. In a manner of speaking, Paul read the Old Testament “against the grain.” The incredible violence with which he did so shows not only how incompatible his experience was with the meaning of the old books, but also how determined he was to preserve, if only by purely mystical exegeses, his bond with the sacred text. The result was the paradox that never ceases to amaze us when we read the Pauline Epistles: on the one hand the Old Testament is preserved; on the other, its original meaning is completely set aside. The new authority that is set up, for which the Pauline Epistles themselves serve as a holy text, is revolutionary in nature. Having found a new source, it breaks away from the authority constituted in Judaism, but continues in part to clothe itself in the images of the old authority, which has now been reinterpreted in purely spiritual terms.
In both of these attitudes—the conservative and the revolutionary—the mystic rediscovers his own experience in the sacred text. Often it is hard to say whether the mystical meaning is actually there or whether he injects it. The genius of mystical exegeses resides in the uncanny precision with which they derive their transformation of Scripture into a corpus symbolicum from the exact words of the text. The literal meaning is preserved, but merely as the gate through which the mystic passes—a gate, however, which he opens up to himself over and over again. The Zohar expresses this very succinctly in a memorable exegesis of Genesis 12:1. God’s words to Abraham, Lekhlekha, are taken not only in their literal meaning, “Get thee out”—that is, they are not interpreted as referring only to God’s command to Abraham to go out into the world—but are also read with mystical literalness as “Go to thee”—that is, to thine own self.
The conservative character mysticism so frequently possesses hinges largely on two elements: the mystic’s own education and his spiritual guide. As to the first, the mystic almost always bears within him an ancient heritage. He has grown up within the framework of a recognized religious authority, and even when he begins to look at things independently and to seek his own path, all his thinking, and above all his imagination, are still permeated with traditional material. He cannot easily cast off this heritage of his fathers, nor does he even try to. Why does a Christian mystic always see Christian visions and not those of a Buddhist? Why does a Buddhist see the figures of his own pantheon and not, for example, Jesus or the Madonna? Why does a Kabbalist on his way of enlightenment meet the prophet Elijah and not some figure from an alien world? The answer, of course, is that the expression of their experience is immediately transposed into symbols from their own world, even if the objects of this experience are essentially the same and not (as some students of mysticism, Catholics in particular, like to suppose) fundamentally different.
But what happens when mysticism has no ties with any religious authority? This problem of the secularized interpretation of amorphous mystical experiences has been raised repeatedly since the Enlightenment. The situation is somewhat obscured by the fact that certain authors, disregarding or rejecting all traditional authority, describe their mystical experience in resolutely secular terms, yet clothe their interpretation of the same experience in traditional images. This is the case with Rimbaud and more consistently with William Blake. They regard themselves as Luciferian heretics, but their imagination is shot through with traditional images, either of the official Catholic Church (Rimbaud) or of subterranean and esoteric, hermetic and spiritualist origin (Blake). Thus, even in such revolutionaries, who seek their authority essentially in themselves and in a secular interpretation of their visions, tradition asserts its power.
Perhaps the best example of a purely naturalistic interpretation of an overwhelming mystical experience is provided by the work, still widely read in North America, of the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman’s friend and the executor of his will. In 1872 Bucke experienced an overpowering mystical illumination; in the years that followed he tried to clarify its meaning and also to arrive at an understanding of all the great mystical experiences that struck him as authentic. He recorded his findings in a book which he entitled Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (1901). The book makes it clear that authentic mystical experience can be interpreted, even by the “mystic” himself, in a purely immanent, naturalistic way, without the slightest reference to religious authority. But even here the scientific and philosophical theories accepted by the author play a determining role, just as the corresponding theories of the Buddhists, Neoplatonists, or Kabbalists shape their interpretations of their experience. The scientific theory which provided this late-19th-century author with his basic concepts was Darwinism, in line with which he regarded mystical experience as a stage in the development of human consciousness toward greater universality. Just as the coming of a new biological species is announced by mutations, which make their appearance in isolated members of the old species, so the higher form of consciousness, which Bucke terms “cosmic consciousness,” is today present only in a few human specimens. This heightened consciousness that will ultimately spread to all mankind is what is now termed mystical experience. Past generations put a religious interpretation on it—a historically understandable error. The mystic’s claim to authority is legitimate, but must be explained in a different way: it is the authority of those whose consciousness has achieved a new stage of development. Of course Bucke’s theories strike us today as naive and scientifically untenable. Nevertheless, I find them extremely illuminating as one more indication that mystical experience is essentially amorphous and can therefore be interpreted in any number of ways.
Still, such secular mysticism is an exception. Most mystics, as we have seen, are strongly influenced by their education, which in a perfectly natural way imbues them with the traditional attitudes and symbols. But the community has never considered this a sufficient safeguard. By its very nature mysticism involves the danger of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable deviation from traditional authority. This is no doubt one of the many reasons for the widespread belief that a mystic requires a spiritual guide, or guru, as he is called in India. On the face of it, the function of the guru is primarily psychological. He prevents the student who sets out to explore the world of mysticism from straying off into dangerous situations. For confusion or even madness lurk in wait: the path of the mystic is beset by perils; it borders on abysses of consciousness and demands a sure and measured step. The Yogis, the Sufis, and the Kabbalists, no less than the manuals of Catholic mysticism, stress the need for a spiritual guide, without whom the mystic runs the risk of losing himself in the wilderness of mystical adventure. The guide should be capable of preserving the proper balance in the mystic’s mind. He alone is familiar with the practical applications of the various doctrines, which cannot be learned from books. And he has an additional function, which has been very little discussed but is nevertheless of great importance: he represents traditional religious authority. He molds the mystic’s interpretation of his experience, guiding it into channels that are acceptable to established authority. How does he accomplish this? By preparing his student for what he may expect along the way and at the goal. He provides at the outset the traditional coloration which the mystical experience, however amorphous, will assume in the consciousness of the novice.
Let us consider, for example, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, an invaluable manual of Catholic mysticism. From the start it impregnates the consciousness of the novice with the images of Christ’s Passion. It shows exactly what the novice has to expect at every step, and sets out to produce the phenomenon it promises. It is the same, to take an example from Jewish mysticism, with the Hasidic-Kabbalistic analysis of the stages of meditation and ecstasy, contained in a famous treatise emanating from the Habad school of White Russian Hasidism, Kuntras ha-Hithpa-’aluth by Rabbi Baer, son of Rabbi Shne’ur Zalman of Ladi. It informs the traveler on the path of “active” contemplation in detail of the stages through which he must pass if his mystical career is to conform to the strict Jewish conceptions of the pure fear and pure love of God, and if he is to be safeguarded against uncontrollable emotional excesses. It provides the traditional Kabbalistic symbols with which this path of the Jewish mystic toward the experience of the divine can be described or interpreted, thus making certain that the path will conform, especially at its most dangerous turning points, to the dictates of authority.
To keep mysticism within the framework of constituted authority, compromises were often necessary. As a highly instructive example of such compromises—an example of how the conservative and the “progressive” aspects of mysticism can merge to form a single eloquent symbol—I should like to discuss here the Kabbalistic conception of the gilluy Eliyahu, the “Revelation of the Prophet Elijah.”
All monotheistic religions possess a distinct conception, one might call it a philosophy, of their own history. In this view, the first revelation expressing the fundamental contents of a religion is the greatest, the highest in rank, and each successive revelation is lower and less authoritative than the last. This obviously creates a serious problem for the mystic, who imputes enormous value to his fresh, living experience. Thus compromise solutions became necessary and they were inevitably reflected in the religious terminology. In Rabbinical Judaism, from which Kabbalistic mysticism developed, a number of different revelations were recognized as authentic and each in its own way authoritative—namely, the revelations of Moses, of the Prophets, of the Holy Spirit (which spoke in the authors of the Psalms and other parts of the Bible), of the receivers of the “Heavenly Voice” (bath kol, believed to have been audible in the Talmudic era), and finally the “revelation of the Prophet Elijah.” The principle remained in force—each of these stages represents a lesser degree of authority than the stage preceding it. But mystics could still make a place for their experience within the traditional framework, provided they defined it in accordance with this descending scale of values.
This was why, when the first Kabbalists appeared on the scene of Jewish history, in Languedoc at the end of the 12th century, they claimed no more for themselves than the modest rank of receivers of a “revelation of the Prophet Elijah.” But it is less modest than it seems, for since the beginnings of Rabbinical Judaism the Prophet Elijah has been a figure profoundly identified with the central preoccupations of Jewry. It is he who carries the divine message from generation to generation, he who at the end of time will reconcile all the conflicting opinions, traditions, and doctrines manifested in Judaism. Men of true piety meet him in the market place no less than in visions. Since he was conceived as the vigilant custodian of the Jewish religious ideal, the Messianic guardian and guarantor of the tradition, it was impossible to suppose that he would ever reveal or communicate anything that was in fundamental contradiction with the tradition. Thus by its very nature the interpretation of mystical experience as a revelation of the Prophet Elijah tended far more to confirm than to question the traditional authority.
It is extremely significant that the first Kabbalists said to have attained this rank were Rabbi Abraham of Posquières and his son Isaac the Blind. Abraham ben David (d. 1198) was the greatest Rabbinical authority of his generation in southern France, a man deeply rooted in Talmudic learning and culture. But at the same time he was a mystic, who formulated his experience in distinctly conservative terms. He himself relates in his writings that the Holy Spirit appeared to him in his house of study; but the Kabbalists said it was the Prophet Elijah who had appeared to him. This interpretation alone could guarantee that no conflict would arise between the Rabbi’s traditional knowledge and the translation of his mystical experience into new conceptions. And when his son, a pure contemplative mystic without any outstanding claim to Rabbinical authority, carried on in his father’s mystical path, the same claim was raised for him. The doctrines formulated by him and his school were looked upon as a legitimate completion of Rabbinical doctrine, whose adherents were in no danger of conflict with traditional authority. Yet tremendous forces were at work in this mysticism, and the symbols in which the new revelation was communicated disclose an intense and by no means undangerous conflict with traditional authority.
This was at the very beginning of Kabbalism. The same phenomenon is to be met with in a central figure of its later development, Isaac Luria in the 16th century. Luria represents both aspects of mysticism in their fullest flower. His whole attitude was decidedly conservative. He fully accepted the established religious authority, which indeed he undertook to reinforce by enhancing its stature and giving it deeper meaning. Nevertheless, the ideas he employed in this apparently conservative task were utterly new and seem doubly daring in their conservative context. And yet, for all their glaring novelty, they were not regarded as a break with traditional authority because the authority of the Prophet Elijah was claimed for them—a claim that was widely accepted thanks to Luria’s impressive personality and piety. But though defined in traditional categories, this new authority, once accepted, brought about profound changes in Judaism, even when its advocates claimed to be doing nothing of the sort. In line with the prevailing view that each new revelation is lower in rank than the last, Luria was reticent about the source of his inspiration. But this reticence should not mislead us. The mystical experience that was his source is still as authentic as any, and as high in rank as any earlier phenomenon in the world of Rabbinical Judaism.
The mystic who lends new symbolic meaning to his holy texts, to the doctrines and ritual of his religion—and this is just what almost all mystics have done and what largely accounts for their importance in the history of religions—discovers a new dimension, a new depth in his own tradition. In employing symbols to describe his own experience and to formulate his interpretations of it, he is actually setting out to confirm religious authority by reinterpreting it, regardless of whether he looks upon the traditional conceptions as symbols or attempts to elucidate them with the help of new symbols. But by thus opening up the symbolic dimensions, he transforms religious authority, and his symbolism is the instrument of this transformation. He bows to authority in pious veneration, but this does not prevent him from transforming it, sometimes radically. He uses old symbols and lends them new meaning, he may even use new symbols and give them an old meaning—in either case we find a dialectical interrelationship between the conservative aspects and the novel, productive aspects of mysticism.
Are we justified in saying that the religious authority is a conscious power in the mind of the mystic, while his conflict with it is rooted in the unconscious layers of his experience? Undoubtedly there have been mystics in whom the dividing line between conscious and unconscious coincided with the dividing line between their conservative and revolutionary tendencies. But this should not lead us to oversimplify. Usually these dividing lines are not so clear. Often enough the conflict takes place quite openly and the mystic is perfectly aware of it: he knows that he must oppose the existing authority, that he has been chosen to found a new authority or to do away with authority altogether.
This was the case with the great leaders of the Anabaptists, whose mystical inspiration is undeniable, and of the Quakers—to cite only these two striking examples from the history of Christianity. And in Judaism the same is true of the Sabbatian and Hasidic leaders. The psychological and historical categories are by no means identical. Often mystics have done their utmost to express themselves within the framework of established authority, and were driven to open conflict with it only when they met with too much opposition within their community. But if they had been free to choose, they would have avoided these conflicts which were not of their seeking. In certain cases it can be shown that the mystics began to put an increasingly radical interpretation on their ideas only after a conflict had been forced upon them.
The Journal of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, provides an excellent example of this. Seldom has it been described so clearly how a mystic, caught up in the dialectic of his experience, struggled with all his might to avoid being drawn into conflict with the established religious authority. A conflict with the Anglican Church was forced upon Wesley, not from within but from without, but then he accepted it with full awareness and fought his battle to a finish. As far as the available documents allow us to judge, the situation of Valentinus, the outstanding Gnostic leader, seems to have been of much the same order. And we find a similar development in the history of Hasidism, whose first leaders had no thought of clashing with Rabbinical authority. When the conflict was forced upon them, some of them gave free rein to their spiritualist mysticism; after a time, however, the movement and its Rabbinical adversaries arrived at a compromise, shaky at first but gradually gaining in stability.
But under what circumstances does conflict arise? What kind of mysticism invites conflict with authority, and what kind does not? To these questions, unfortunately, we have no satisfactory answer. Such conflicts are largely unpredictable and do not hinge essentially on the personality or doctrines of the mystic. They depend entirely on historical circumstances. Yet perhaps there is one exception to this statement: those mystics who may be characterized as innately radical—a quality of personality that is by no means limited to mystics. There are plenty of men who incline by nature to the radical formulation of their ideas, who chafe at authority of any kind and have no patience whatever with the folly of their fellow men. They need not necessarily be mystics to enter into opposition to established authority. But when they do happen to be mystics, this radical tendency tends to become particularly marked, as in the case of George Fox at the inception of the English Quaker movement.
Only in the rare and extreme case of nihilistic mysticism do mystical doctrines as such imply conflict. Otherwise, doctrines which have been expressed with the utmost force at certain times and places without leading to any conflict whatsoever may, under other historical conditions, foment violent struggles. Of this the history of Catholic mysticism contains famous examples, and a historian of mysticism can derive little benefit from the attempts of the apologists to prove that two doctrines, one of which has been accepted by the Church, while the other has been condemned as heretical, only appear to be similar, but are in reality fundamentally different. It was not, for instance, the doctrines of quietism as originally formulated by its representatives in the Spanish Church that had changed when Madame Guyon was condemned toward the end of the 17th century; what had changed was the historical situation.
We find the same situation in Hasidism. When Israel Baal-Shem, the 18th-century founder of Polish Hasidism, put forward the mystical thesis that communion with God (devekuth) is more important than the study of books, it aroused considerable opposition and was cited in all the anti-Hasidic polemics as proof of the movement’s subversive and anti-Rabbinical tendencies. But the exact same theory had been advanced two hundred years before by Isaac Luria himself in Safed without arousing the slightest antagonism. It was not the thesis that had changed, but the historical climate.
Let us now turn from the attitude of the mystics toward authority to the efforts of the authorities to contain the strivings of the mystics within the traditional framework. As we have already seen, the authorities usually do their best to place obstacles in the path of the mystic. They give him no encouragement, and if in the end the obstacles frighten the mystic and bring him back to the old accustomed ways—so much the better from the standpoint of authority.
All great institutional religions have shown a marked distaste for lay mystics—that is, the unlearned mystics who, fired by the intensity of their experience, believe they can dispense with the traditional and approved channels of religious life. The less educated the candidate for mystical illumination, the less he knew of theology, the greater was the danger of a conflict with authority. Regardless of their specific content, all manuals of mysticism written from the standpoint of traditional authority illustrate this point. The Jewish authorities, for example, tried to avoid conflicts by restricting the right to engage in mystical practice and speculation to fully trained Talmudic scholars. All Kabbalistic manuals quote Maimonides’s warning: “No one is worthy to enter Paradise [the realm of mysticism] who has not first taken his fill of bread and meat,” i.e., the common fare of sober Rabbinical learning.
Such warnings, it must be admitted, were none too effective. The history of the great religions abounds in lay mysticism and in movements growing out of it. In the history of Christianity lay mysticism is exemplified by movements like the Gnostics, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Spanish Alumbrados, and the Protestant sects of the last four centuries. The Church, it is true, branded all such movements as heresies. But in Judaism this was not always the case. Although many of the great Kabbalists fully met the requirements of Maimonides’s conservative warning, there were always Kabbalists who were not so well versed in Rabbinical knowledge or who, in any event, had no complete Talmudic schooling. A case in point is the most celebrated of all the Jewish mystics of recent centuries, Israel Baal-Shem, known as the Baal-Shem Tov. His “knowledge” in the traditional sense of the word was very meager; he had no teacher of flesh and blood to guide him on his way—the only spiritual guide he ever alluded to was the Prophet Ahijah of Shiloh, with whom he was in constant spiritual and visionary contact. In short, he was a pure lay mystic, and lay mysticism was a vital factor in the development of the Hasidic movement he founded. Yet this movement (though at the price of compromise) won the recognition of the traditional authority. Other movements, in which lay mysticism played an important part—Sabbatianism, for example—were unable to gain such recognition and were forced into open conflict with Rabbinical authority.
Especially in monotheistic religions the religious authorities had still another method of avoiding conflict with the mystics of the community. This was to charge them with social responsibility. They put pressure on the mystics to mingle with the simple folk, to participate in their activities, instead of remaining among themselves in communities of the “enlightened.” In Christianity, where since the beginnings of monasticism mystics have always been able to band together, this trend has not always been as clear as in Judaism. From the Talmudic period on, we find a decided disinclination to let mystics organize communities of their own. Time and time again the rabbis insisted that mystical experience, the “love of God,” must be confirmed by activity in the human conmunity, that it was not enough for an individual to pour out his soul to God. This tendency has been highly effective in “taming” mystics and holding them within the limits imposed by traditional authority.
In diametrical and irreconcilable opposition to such attempts to relieve the tension between mysticism and religious authority stands the extreme case of mystical nihilism, in which all authority is rejected in the name of mystical experience or illumination. At first glance the nihilist mystic seems to be the most free, the most faithful to his central insight; for having attained the highest goal of mystical experience—namely, the dissolution of all form—he repudiates all values and the authority which guarantees the validity of values. Yet from the standpoint of history, he is the most constrained and unfree of mystics, for historical reality as embodied in the human community prevents him, far more than it does any other mystic, from openly proclaiming his message. This, no doubt, explains why the documents of nihilistic mysticism are extremely rare. Because of their subversive character the authorities suppressed and destroyed them; where they have come down to us, it is because their authors resorted to an ambiguity of expression that makes our interpretation of the texts questionable.
For want of the original sources of 2nd-century gnostic nihilism, which have not survived, it seems to me that we possess no more impressive record of an unmistakably nihilistic mysticism than the Polish Book of the Words of the Lord, in which the disciples of Jacob Frank (1726-97) set down their master’s teachings after his own spoken words. This book, springing from the radical wing of the Sabbatian movement, illustrates how the mystical experience of man’s contact with the primal source of life could find its expression in a symbol implying the negation of all authority. An illumination concerning Messianic freedom in redemption crystallizes for Frank around the symbol of Life. This “Life,” however, is not the harmonious life of all things in bond with God, a world ordered by divine law and submissive to His authority. It is, on the contrary, utterly free, fettered by no law or authority, and it never ceases to produce forms and to destroy what it has produced: it is the anarchic promiscuity of all living things. Into this bubbling cauldron, this continuum of destruction, the mystic plunges. To him it is the ultimate human experience. For Frank, anarchic destruction represented all the Luciferian radiance, all the positive tones and overtones, of the word “Life.” The nihilistic mystic descends into the abyss in which the freedom of living things is born; he passes through all the embodiments and forms that come his way, committing himself to none; and not content with rejecting and abrogating all values and laws, he tramples them underfoot and desecrates them, in order to attain the elixir of Life.
It goes without saying that from the standpoint of the community and its institutions, such mysticism should have been regarded as demonic possession. And it is indicative of one of the enormous tensions that run through the history of Judaism that this most destructive of all visions should have been formulated in its most unrestrained form by one who rebelled against the Jewish law and broke away from Judaism.
A statement which has come down to us from Rabbi Mendel Torum of Rymanóv (d. 1814), one of the great Hasidic saints, throws a striking light on the whole problem of the relationship between authority and mysticism. Let me try to interpret this statement. The revelation given to Israel on Mount Sinai, is, as everyone knows, a sharply defined set of doctrines, a summons to the human community; its meaning is perfectly clear, and it is certainly not a mystical formula open to infinite interpretation. But what, the question arises, is the truly divine element in this revelation? The question is already discussed in the Talmud. When the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments, what could they actually hear, and what did they hear? Some maintained that all the Commandments were spoken to the children of Israel directly by the divine voice. Others said that only the first two Commandments—“I am The Lord thy God” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”—were communicated directly. Then the people were overwhelmed, they could no longer endure the divine voice, and therefore were obliged to receive the remaining Commandments through Moses. Moses alone was able to withstand the divine voice, and it was he who repeated in a human voice those statements of supreme authority that are the Ten Commandments.
This conception of Moses as interpreter of the divine voice for the people was developed much more radically by Maimonides,2 whose ideas Rabbi Mendel of Rymanóv carried to their ultimate conclusion. In Rabbi Mendel’s view, not even the first two Commandments were revealed directly to the whole people of Israel. All that Israel heard was the aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first Commandment begins, the aleph of the word anokhi, “I.” This strikes me as a highly remarkable statement. In Hebrew the consonant aleph represents nothing more than the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. Thus the aleph may be said to denote the source of all articulate sound, and indeed the Kabbalists always regarded it as the spiritual root of all other letters, encompassing in its essence the whole alphabet and hence all other elements of human discourse. To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. With his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, then, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning. In order to become a foundation of religious authority, it had to be translated into human language, and that is what Moses did. In this light every statement on which authority is grounded would become a human interpretation, however valid and exalted, of something that transcends it.3 Once in history a mystical experience was imparted to a whole nation and formed a bond between that nation and God. But the truly divine element in this revelation, the immense aleph was not in itself sufficient to express the divine message, and in itself it was more than the community could bear. Only the prophet was empowered to communicate the meaning of this inarticulate voice to the community. It is mystical experience which conceives and gives birth to authority.
1 I owe this formulation to an article by G. A. Coe, “The Sources of the Mystic Revelation,” Hibbert Journal, VI (1907-8), p. 367.
2 In Guide to the Perplexed (II, 33) he puts forward the opinion that wherever, in passages dealing with the revelation on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel are said to have heard words, it is meant that they heard the (inarticulate) sound of the voice, but that Moses heard the words (in their meaningful articulation) and communicated them.
3 This opinion, as my friend Ernst Simon has called to my attention, is expressed with great precision and in a form suggesting the language of the mystics, by Franz Rosenzweig in a letter of 1925 to Martin Buber. Rosenzweig denies that the revelation on Mount Sinai gave laws. “The only immediate content of revelation . . . is revelation itself; with va-yered [he came down, Exod. 19:20] it is essentially complete, with va-yedabber [he spoke, Exod. 20:1] interpretation sets in, and all the more so with 'anokhi [the “I” at the beginning of the Ten Commandments].” Cf. Franz Rosenzweig, Briefe, Berlin, 1935, p. 535; English translation in F. Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, ed. N. N. Glatzer, New York, 1955, p. 118.