Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jewish Mysticism

I have been studying the Sefer Yetsira this summer and fall, and have put it down a couple of times, but now taken it up again. I have recently been able to read the online class of Rachel Elior on Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom . It is one of the very delightful experiences of the internet to be able to browse through her class discussions on this text. Here is one of her responses to a student question.

The Yiddish writers conceived their project of documentation following in the footsteps of the Jewish literary heritage that documented tragedies. For example, following the crusades, "books of tears" were written. People wrote descriptions of the martyrdom and persecutions and of tormented parents slaughtering their children out of despair.

They also wrote memorial lamentations recording the names of the deceased (please read Simon Bernfeld, Sefer ha'Demaot, Robert Chazen, Jeremy Cohen, Israel Youval and Ivan Marcus on the Jews and the Crusades). In the 17th century Natan Neta Hanover wrote Yeven Metzulah as a testimony to the massacres of more than 100,000 Jews in the Ukraine in 1648-1649. The book chronicles the facts of the events.

The Yiddish writers followed these Jewish traditions.There are various ways to encounter tragedies that you can not counter with physical force. Writing is a central way to record, to commemorate, to defy and to do justice. But not every writing is mystical writing.


Sefer Yetzira is the first text in the Jewish library that reflects upon language, upon its infinite nature, its endless compositional possibilities, its creative divine nature, its bridging character between the divine spirit and the human spirit and its grammatical character and its connection to natural phenomena. The numinous meaning of language allows us to transcend the border of the senses, to frequent the imaginary realm, to share times of days gone by.

These features express themselves in writings which allows us be in places that we have never visited, to meet writers of divine character or of human inspiration, to read laws of divine origin and to experience human freedom in times of constraint. All that would be impossible without language.

You asked how the tradition would have been different without Sefer Yetsira. Well, first of all this small book is the foundation for the entire kabbalist library based on the 10 spheres of infinite nothingness and the 22 letters of foundation. It is the foundation of freedom to tell the story of creation from a new vantage point, that combines divine and human inspiration. Interestingly, there is no book like it. It is unique and much of the kabbalistic literature is about expounding on its mysterious sayings.

The word "text" is related to the Latin root textere (known to us from textile) which means "weaving" =96 every text is woven from previous yarns and adds new threads. The Book of Creation is certainly among the most richly woven texts. It has inspired endless dialogue between people who are interested in the relation between the creative divine language and the creative human language, between creativity, freedom, memory, language and commemoration, in our conceptualization of creation and many more related questions.

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