Friday, April 21, 2006

Messianic Jewish Mysticism?

Messianic Jews do a lot of things that resemble mysticism. We have times of silent prayer where we simply listen for what God wants to tell us. We have times of worship with dancing to music, getting our whole body involved. We sometimes pray by "speaking in tongues". We believe that God imparts his nature into us, especially when a small group of people share a meal with him (as was done literally with the Tabernacle's sh'lamim offering, and as is now done metaphorically).

Is there such a thing as Messianic Jewish mysticism?

This is a tricky question, because "mysticism" is such a loaded word.

Technically, mysticism refers to something concealed. Two kinds of concealment can count.

Some mystics believe they have secrets not know to most people. The Roman, first-century "mystery cults" are examples of these. (The early followers of Yeshua were sometimes classified by outside Romans as one of these mystery cults).

Other mystics believe that something not secret is ignored by most people, but has power of recognized and used in a certain way. Thus something is concealed by misunderstanding or apathy even while being out in plain sight. An example of the latter is seen in some of the modern "sacred name" movement, where people believe that they know how to pronounce God's name and that doing so does something special.

Since so many people worldwide have accepted Yeshua and his teachings, it is difficult to claim that Messianic Judaism has anything concealed, by either kind of concealment.

Furthermore, although Messianic Judaism tries to be appreciative of Rabbinic teachings and use them as appropriate, almost all of Kabbalah (Rabbinic mysticism) is blatantly against Yeshua's teaching and cannot be incorporated into Messianic Judaism. So any attempt to call certain parts of Messianic Jewish culture "Messianic Jewish mysticism" would cause more harm than good, as it would cause many people to falsely imagine the existence of a sensible blend of the teachings of Yeshua and the Kabbalists.

(Kabbalah does not take scripture literally, but redefines and reinterprets it; see the Zohar's commentary on the crossing of the Red Sea for an accessible example. Kabbalah interprets scripture differently, emphasizing Gematria and other sod mysteries and codes. Kabbalah has very non-Messianic understandings of what it means to make something holy, of what it means to be redeemed, of what the evil inclination is and what it means to conquer it, of what is broken about This World and how to be united with God, and of what the Messianic Era is all about.)

To further complicate the language, besides the Kabbalah Iyunit (the philosphy of Rabbinic mysticism) there is "practical Kabbalah", which is often an embarassment to followers of the Kabbalah Iyunit as well as others who value Torah. Because the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, has the line "Whatsoever effects healing is not considered witchcraft", in the five centuries since Rabbi Isaac Luria popularized Kabbalah the name "Kabbalah" has become associated with all sorts of spoken formulas, use of amulets of healing and protection, staring meditatively at modern Hebrew letters, and so on.

In Deuteronomy 18:10-11 there are seven different types of magic which are prohibited:
  • kosaym (divination): predicting the future or answering yes-no questions about the future
  • onayn (conjuring): bringing clouds or judging optimal times for activities
  • nachaysh/chashayf (fortune telling): interpreting signs and omens
  • chovayr (charming): making charms or amulets connected with people, or putting demons into snakes
  • sho'ayl ov (inquiring as a medium): speaking with the dead or spirits
  • yeedonee (knowing one): gaining knowledge by using bones
  • doraysh el ha'mayteem (seeker of the dead): laying down on graves to become posessed by the dead
The cited Talmudic verse was probably considering healing by laying hands on people while praying, anointing the sick with oil, or using ritual immersions: all of which were common practices in the first century Jewish world and are not contrary to Deuteronomy 18:10-11. But that Talmudic verse has been misused to supercede scripture, regrettably in a way that is also called "Kabbalah". Thus there is even more reason to avoid trying to give meaning to the phrase "Messianic Jewish mysticism".

So, is there a better phrase for the things Messianic Judaism does that are about calming the soul, knowing God more deeply, and becoming more filled with God?

I cannot think of one.

The only other word I can think of with even remotely similar meaning is the modern Christian term "charismatic", but that is an equally loaded term which means different things to different people and is about certain behaviors rather than generally calming the soul, knowing God more deeply, and becoming more filled with God.

Any ideas?