Mysticism & Judaism

Moshe Ben-Chaim


The pursuit of truth demands that we abandon any belief when it is exposed to be false, i.e., rejected by reality. However, many people are emotionally driven and continue to believe notions devoid of reason, or notions without evidence. Such people also gauge their activities based on horoscopes or superstitions. 

Why do people ignore their senses and their minds? There are many causes... 

For one, people wish to defend cherished views, to find security, or they harbor emotional bias. Other times people support notions because some great person echoed that view, they saw it in a popular or ancient book, or because the masses support that notion. 

Subsequent to Ramban's successful rejection of Dominican friar Pablo Christiani (Disputation at Barcelona), Christiani maintained his rejected views, even telling others he was the victor of the Disputation. He continued his attacks against Ramban and successfully obtained Ramban's exile and the burning of the records of the Disputation. This display of such arrogant intolerance, when even reality is insufficient to force one to concede, is part of each of us. Be not misled that Pablo Christiani was a unique psyche. All people have the potential to deny reality to such extremes. Be keenly aware of this emotion of intolerance as you read onward. We will touch upon sensitive issues, possibly arousing an emotion within you to argue. But do not follow your emotions. If you follow reason, you will succeed in hearing, and hopefully following the truth.

This article cannot speak to the likes of those just mentioned; it can be of value only to one who can say "I am wrong," or "A great person has erred," or "All books aside from Torah, Prophets and Writings are fallible." However, if you enter this topic prejudiced in any manner, my words will have no purpose for you. You will view me as attempting to personally attack you, or to undermine what you value. But as I don't know you, this cannot be so. Instead, determine if in my words there are truths. If you desire truth rather than the comfort in what is familiar, then you will find rational arguments will displace your former emotional and flimsy beliefs, with firm love for what you will come to see as "real"; what can never be uprooted. It is this sentiment King David speaks of when he calls God "my Rock." The king likened God's absolute truths to a rock; a permanent, immovable object, firm in its everlasting truths, providing ultimate security.

The Topic

Our question is whether mysticism is a reality, including its many forms adopted within Jewish culture. Although many people, even great names, have referred to "mysticism," this does not instantly validate mysticism. To validate anything as truth, it must conform to reality. It must be proven.

What is "Real?"

As Maimonides teaches, experience, reason or Torah ideals are the sole criteria that can validate anything as true. For example, I might believe in unicorns, but until one is experienced, we do not say my imagination validates this fantasy. And as we have experienced cats, this experience tells us cats are real. Second, in addition to experience (trusting our senses), reason too can validate truth. Thus, I need not meet the architect of the Empire State Building to know through reason alone, that he existed. And third, Torah is known as Divine – meaning its is 100% truth – since its miraculous receipt through Moses was witnessed by millions. All subsequent prophets too wrote their books through Divine inspiration. All matters other than what experience, reason or Torah/Prophets/Writings teach, Maimonides rightfully says we must not accept. Meaning, we must reject it. For all other matters carry no validation. Nothing can validate a truth without 1) experiencing it, 2) reasoning or 3) a scriptural Torah source. This is quite sensible, since our human design is limited to senses (the ability to experience), reason, and we know history witnessed by masses must have occurred. It is impossible to persuade millions of people to believe that they attended events, if in fact, they did not. 

For this reason, we do not suggest all statements by Talmudic or Torah commentators are true, since men err, while God inspired only Torah, Prophets and Writings. In fact, Talmud and Chumash are replete with men refuting each other, thereby testifying to the fallibility of human knowledge. The Rabbis themselves admitted they were wrong and the Greeks were correct. The Zohar, Kabbalah, Tanya and other human works are equally subject to error and severe errors have been found. Moses erred, and God referred to him as a prophet of such high perfection, that no man before or after him will approach his level. Therefore, as Moses erred, all men err, since all men are below Moses in perfection, including Talmudic Rabbis, the Vilna Gaon, the authors of Tanya and Zohar, etc., works not written prophetically or with Divine Influence.

It must be clear: God designed us with senses and reasoning precisely to enable our distinction between truth and falsehood. If we have no evidence to validate some notion, we must claim it is false. But one might suggest that although we have no evidence, this does not mean we won't find evidence, or that its false…"maybe unicorns or aliens  exist," they purport. Our response is this:  "You need no longer to work, since you "might" find one of these creatures and become famous and rich."  However, the fact this person retains his job is his express denial of such creatures, and this mode of thinking. 

Based on this, we will test mysticism to determine if it is validated by either of these three modes.

What does "mystical" mean?

Definition of "mystic" (from Old French "mystique"): "one who believes as truth, that which is beyond the intellect's grasp."

Mystical beliefs concern matters that are unproven. It is quite telling that people who endorse mysticism such as horoscopes will not bet all their wealth on their predictions; they will not accept a job with the promise of pay after 365 days, even if a friend says, "I saw in your horoscope that you will get paid then."  When it comes to matters that really matter, people are suddenly quite realistic. This demonstrates that the very people who support mysticism verbally, do not fully believe in it in practice. And actions do speak louder than words.

Of course, the question is why people believe matters they have not sensed, or reasoned to be true. We offered a few motives above: people desire to maintain comforting views, to defend a beloved leader, or due to some other bias.

Other motives to accept mysticism largely include a desire to connect to something "spiritual."  This belief satisfies a person's need to be favored by God, or to create a pious and religious self-image. Naturally, men and women desire a sense of self that is positive. People blindly adopt theories that offer this self image. Thus, if by believing in "X" one views himself as more "spiritual," people are inclined to accept such mystical views. Unfortunately, such individuals cannot explain what it is they believe in. They simply parrot words, since what is unreal, cannot be explained at all. 

An example is when someone says there is a "force" that controls our destiny. If we ask where this force is, no one knows. If we ask how it relates to the future, when the future does not yet exist, again they don't know. If we ask why this force selects one person over another, and why it renders John's future different than Mike's…you get the picture. People accept what please their emotions, regardless of the complete lack of reason or evidence.

Lately, Kabbalah has become a growing trend among those seeking a stronger Jewish identity. But Kabbalah errs by claiming knowledge of our unknowable God. Kabbalah refers to terms like "ein sof", "imma", "abba", and other humanistic terms referring to various "aspects" of God. No kabbalist or mystic has ever been able to explain these and other terms, since they employ physical terms to describe our non-physical God. It's an impossibility. Now, as God told Moses "Man cannot know me," Kabbala violates God's words, attempting to explain what God said cannot be explained. Adherence to God's Torah is not the concern of mystics. Mystics are also not well versed in the basics of Torah. They cannot detect when Kabbalah violates God's words. Furthermore, such divisions of God into imma, abba, etc., violate a Torah fundamental that God is unlike His creations. Creation is subject to division, as all matter is. But as God is not physical, division cannot apply to Him. Kabbalists say otherwise.

Kabbala's popularity is due to the imagination of attendees, as they assume they are now "in touch" with some higher universe, although when asked, they cannot explain a thing. 

How does God say we are to approach Him? Does He endorse mysticism? Did the Patriarchs, Matriarchs or Prophets ever endorse mysticism? Does the Torah in fact prohibit mysticism? And what about the Talmudic Rabbis?

What Approach Does Torah Demand?

God gave us a system called Torah. He said this is a complete system, as God commands us not add to, or subtract from the Torah's words.

Torah prescribes reason, not belief, "Don't forget what your eyes saw" was Moses' warning to the Jews regarding Revelation at Sinai. He did not ask for belief, which applies to imagination. Moses asked the Jews to rely on their senses, Maimonides' first criteria for accepting truths. Mysticism on the other hand does not offer a basis in what we sense, and for this reason alone, we must reject it's claims. 

Nowhere in Torah, Prophets or Writings do the Patriarchs, Matriarchs or Prophets speak of or endorse mysticism. In fact, parshyos Achrei Mos and Kedoshim which we read this Shabbos contain many prohibitions against mysticism.

We are not bound to follow Torah commands alone, and dismiss the perfections of Torah personalities. God includes their actions to direct us in their path. Our great leaders adhered to natural law, using their abilities in all areas of life, and they prayed to God. They did not employ any other means to achieve their goals. Again, God said not to add to the Torah, so altering the lessons set by these great individuals violates Torah's message. 

When we find the Talmudic Rabbis speaking of cryptic matters, we must not suddenly reject the Torah's lessons and suggests mysticism is a truth. We should follow King Solomon's lesson, that the Rabbis speak in riddles. And as that wise King taught, they also speak in metaphors, as Mishlei shows in abundance. Don't be concerned with the numerous "Rabbis" found today selling mystical beliefs. Many men throughout time distort truth for personal gain. And titles of "Rabbi" today should not block your thinking. Be impressed by this alone: the person who is vigilant to support God's words. 

The first lesson here is that Torah, Prophets and Writings are bereft of mysticism. And if you will suggest the witch (Baales Ove) actually raised Samuel from the dead, or that Elijah and Elisha resurrected people, you have not grasped the matter. For God alone is the creator of life, and man has no power to give life. The prophets prayed to God, and this is why the boys revived. It was God's response to prayer. And the witch did nothing, as Radak makes so clear (Sam. I, 28:25). The verses suggest Samuel was "actually" resurrected (Sam. I, 28:15) to convey the "reality" Saul gave to this event out of his desperation. It is a lesson in Saul's deviant personality, that he treated his imagination as real. 

The Torah rarely does so, but at times God conveys how real something is, by describing it in "real" terms, although it never transpired. Similarly, the Jews were in Egypt only 210 years. Yet the Torah says that we dwelled there 430 years: "And the settlement of the Jews which they lived in Egypt was 430 years (Exod. 12:40)." Although the Jews did not live in Egypt 430 years, the idolatrous influence — identical to Egypt's influence – was already at work from Abraham's time, which was 430 years before the Exodus. Here too, God wishes to convey the reality of the influence of idolatry. Man need not live "in" Egypt to be affected by the pull of idolatry. To teach this, God says the Jews dwelled in Egypt "430 years", to teach how real were the affects of idolatry long before we were steeped in it in Egypt. God equates the 220 years before Egypt, with the 21o actually in Egypt, as both eras had equal idolatrous impact…as if we were in Egypt the entire 430 years.

The Rabbis also dismiss mysticism:

"R. Shimon ben Gamliel said: Because the early ones used prophecy, they would name [their children] based on an event.  However, we who do not use the divine spirit [prophecy ceased—Tal. San. 11a] name [our children] after our fathers (Bereshis Rabbah 37:7)." Here, Rav Shimon ben Gamliel confirms that today there is nothing mystical in names.

Another quote:  "R. Yossi bar Hanina said: There are four types of names.  There are those whose names are pleasant and whose actions are pleasant.  There are those whose names are ugly and whose actions are ugly.  There are those whose names are ugly and whose actions are pleasant.  And there are those whose names are pleasant and whose actions are ugly (Bereshis Rabbah 71:3)."  R. Yossi bar Hanina confirms that one's name is irrelevant and has no affect on one's choices or personality.

Mystics: Devoid of reason

It should alarm you that mystics propose no basis or reason whatsoever for their views. They tell you "things" or "powers" exist that affect us, offering no explanation. Let's take this example of our names.

A mystical view  is that one's name has some affect on his or her personality. For example, last month I learned of an orthodox Rabbi selling his service of reading your name, and offering personal insights. He wished to defend his service suggesting there is some "spirituality" in a name. I asked what he meant by spirituality, and he was unable to explain it. I asked how one's name could, in any way, affect a person. Again he had no answer. His opinion was that if one is named Judah, he will possess some character of leadership, like the Biblical Judah. This, I responded, might be so, but is explained psychologically like the other source in Talmud that says people born on Sunday will excel at what they do; they can be expert thieves, or expert Talmudists. When one identifies with his birthdate, his ego naturally feels this day of birth is significant. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where just as Sunday was the beginning or "head" of the week, this person to will strive to be a leader or "head" in some measure. The mystic reads the Rabbis words like fairytales, forfeiting real knowledge. But a reasonable person will understand that one need not look any further than natural laws (psychology) to explain the words and wisdom of our great Talmudic Rabbis. A person named Judah might identify with that Biblical personality, and emulate him. All this is so simple to an intelligent person.

The mystical Rabbi I spoke with assumed a person's name carries specific relevance or insight in the person bearing that name, and one might draw closer to God with this understanding. However, as the Torah includes the only means of becoming closer to God, following the Torah is all that is required. If one does not follow the Torah, he is distanced from God, and nothing can bridge that gap. If one follows Torah and is close to God, then there is no gap to bridge. In either case, the mystical belief that names make us close to God, is not in God's Torah.

The few cases in Torah where people were named, was based on their accomplishments. Abram was changed to Abraham, meaning a father of nations. This name change was due to Abraham's "prior" perfection as Abram, as he toiled teaching others. His perfection predated his name change, so his new name was not causative. Similarly, God added Israel to Jacob as an additional name, based on his success dealing with men and with his inner perfection. The matriarchs named their children at times based on their emotional desires. The names Reuben, Shimone and Levi expressed Leah's desire that Jacob love her.  Joseph, meaning to "add" another son, was given by Rachel to her son. But the mystical Rabbi wished to ignore the Torah, and make money. I wonder why he did  not teach these sources too.

It is a wonder that the Rabbi believed his position himself, firstly, as he had no reasoning. But also, since many people have identical names, how can reading that name suggest two different people share the exact same personalities?!

Another argument is that anyone, at anytime, has the right to change his or her name. Do we then say this change of name also changes the person? That is foolish.

And most of all, God gave every person free will. Despite what his parents name him, he can choose to be a leader or follower; a righteous person or a sinner. One's name does not affect one's free will. As mystical matters are unproven, following mysticism equates to following nothingness.

No Value in Siding with Great Minds

The mystical Rabbi continued, defending his position by saying the Vilna Gaon supported the influence/meaning of names. But I ask, is anything gained when he says, "I agree with the Vilna Gaon" while he offered no explanation? Others who enjoyed this Rabbi's name-reading service oddly said, "The Rabbi is not relying on reason for his art of name analysis." Let's understand this...

Great minds applied reason to all matters. The Ramban displayed excellent rationality when debating Dominican Friar Pablo Christiani as read in the Disputation at Bercelona. To suggest that such a rational thinker accepted any matter without intelligence, is a disgrace to the Ramban. Therefore, when we read of  his acceptance of Kabbalah, we must not project onto him the nonsensical beliefs of today parading under the guise of Ramban's Kabbalah. Today's Kabbalah and Ramban's Kabbalah are similar only in name. Ramban applied reason to all areas of life, but as we see in the inexplicable position voiced today, no one offers any reasonable approach, yet they accept notions of "powers" and heretical positions that divide our indivisible God into many parts.  We hear terms without any meaning.

Similarly, when this mystical Rabbi said he was following the Vilna Gaon's (Gra) position of the significance of names, but offered no understanding for the Gra, this Rabbi was at fault. Merely parroting what one reads, without explaining it, is useless. Repeating a view to others should be done only when one can offer reasoning. But without any reasoning, why is this Rabbi supporting one view, instead of the opposite view? The Rabbi should have said, "I don't know what the Gra meant", since he cannot explain the Gra. But to follow a practice without explaining it, and further, to recommend it to others, is a lie, since he is saying "this position is true" but he cannot show how it is so.


In conclusion, we note that Torah contains no mysticism and actually prohibits it. In fact, Torah demands we rely on what our senses tell us, as seen in Moses' words regarding Revelation. Maimonides and the Rabbis too used reason, and did not accept anything unproven. We find no evidence that names somehow possess powers. It is human insecurity that propels belief in non-proven and imaginary things. Just as King Saul accepted fantasy over reality, people today follow this course, despite the Torah's loud and clear admonitions to follow only reason and evidence…to side with what is real.