Mysticism and Angels: Intro Post (Mysticism 101)
Welcome! I’m excited (and a little scared) to be embarking on another nonfiction e-book adventure. Before we get started, I thought I’d take a moment to explain why I’m doing this, what I’ve done before on this topic, and what I hope to do in this series going forward.
If you don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Michele Lang, and I am an author of commercial fiction of all kinds — fantasy, science fiction, and romance. My most recent novels are historical fantasy (the Lady Lazarus trilogy, published by Tor) — LADY LAZARUS, the first book in the trilogy, released in 2010, DARK VICTORY, book #2, came out early this year, and the final book in the trilogy, REBEL ANGELS, is coming March 2013.
These books are set in a magical Budapest on the eve of World War II, and feature demons, angels, vampires, werewolves, wizards, imps, golems, and most importantly, the Lazarus witches of the title. Magda and Gisele Lazarus are Jewish witches, who can trace their lineage all the way back to the Witch of Ein Dor (of Book of Samuel fame), who summon angels and ancestors, seek a magical book with the power to change the course of history, and…
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. The magic system in this series is tied to Jewish mysticism and magic, and the angels, demons, etc who are battling in this magical World War II have a *lot* of back story and baggage behind their struggles.
So, part of the reason I’m writing this series is to give my readers a companion to the fiction series, that puts the magical system and the mystical ideas in the Lady Lazarus books some sort of context. I already started doing this in my first companion e-book, The World of Lady Lazarus, which explores more of the historical context for the books (and the Biblical ties too, though my treatment of the subject was scant).
I’m encouraged by the warm response I’ve gotten from readers and fans by the slight treatment I gave the subject in non-fiction e-book #1. And I was also gratified by the outpouring of enthusiasm from fans at ConnectiCon in Hartford last month, where for the first time ever I gave a talk about Kabbalah and Angels, a subtopic of what I’m going to be covering here online.
But it’s not just readers and their requests for this e-book that compel me to do this project. It’s personal. The Lady Lazarus books are a magicalized family history, really — my own family was trapped in Budapest and Krakow during World War II, and while they did not have extensive, powerful magic at their disposal, it is truly a miracle that any of them survived.
Even more than that, though, I have been obsessed with both World War II and the roots of Jewish mysticism and folk magic since before I could read. These folk tales, Biblical stories, and mystical beliefs have informed my understanding of the world, and my writing too.
And while I have studied Jewish history and mysticism in college, I never took the time to systematize what I knew about the subject, and really think about the practical implications for my writing and my life. The books I’ve read, the classes I’ve taken, even the family stories, have profoundly influenced my writing, and yet I have not taken a conscious, methodical look at this rich, wonderful material with a writer’s eyes. I’m writing this e-book series as much for my own enjoyment and edification as for anybody else, to be honest!
This personal dimension, by the way, is part of what is scaring me about this series. I am no Biblical or Kabbalah scholar, and I have such a reverence for this vast body of material that I truly feel unworthy to opine upon it. But I love these stories, legends, and philosophies of the world, feel a connection to them, and decided to go ahead and share them, share my thoughts as a student, not an expert, in the hope that my own questions and musings will spark your own.
I don’t have any answers to give you about the Big Stuff, in other words. In much of this, I don’t even know enough to ask probing, well-informed questions. But I treasure these elements of mystical thought, and I present the resources and the background for you to explore more thoroughly should you wish.
So with this caveat — I am no great scholar of the subject, only a student — let’s get started.
Before I get into the details of various traditions, various celestial and other beings, and practical applications of this system, I need to draw you a map of the world of Jewish philosophy and texts as a whole. You need to get the sense of how, for example, Kabbalistic thought fits into the larger context of Jewish orthodoxy, folk belief, and mysticism, in order to understand its influence.
As the title states, this is Mysticism 101. Jewish history is long, far-flung, and incredibly complex, and my aim here is to give you some framework, some sense of how it all developed. We are going to take what looks like a long detour into the history of Jewish sacred texts before we even arrive at a discussion of mysticism.
Here’s a timeline of Jewish history, just to give you a sense of how much stuff *happened* over thousands of years…If you are interested in this topic, and the incredible complexity of this history, check out this introductory series on Jewish history at Aish.com. It’s a mere overview that runs for 68 chapters, and it will give you more detail than I do below. If the Aish series is a crash course, my little summary below is the merest introduction.
It all starts with the Torah, the five books of Moses. The Torah, by tradition handed down by the Almighty via Moses at Mount Sinai, means “Instructions for Living” — and it is a blueprint of all the wisdom and the glory of the universe. Everything you need to live a happy life is encoded in these books. Everything else, all the sacred texts that follow are an elaboration and exploration of the wisdom encapsulated in the Torah.
There are two editions of the Torah, if you will: the Written Torah, and the Oral or Spoken Torah. In Jewish tradition, the Almighty explained the written Torah to Moses, and the spoken knowledge was conveyed by Moses along with the written books. And it is taught that you cannot understand the written Torah without knowing the Oral Torah as well.
This oral tradition was handed down from Moses to Aaron, from teacher to student, over the ages until the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. During the Second Temple period, the great sages of the time, the men of the Great Assembly, sought to write down this oral wisdom, and it became known as the Mishnah. They also sifted through the extensive written history of the Jewish people since the Five Books of Moses and picked the official books of the Hebrew Bible: the five books of the Torah, the eight books of the Prophets, and eleven books of “miscellaneous” — the Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, the books of Job, Ruth, Esther, etc…
During the Second Temple period, though extensive notes had been made on the Oral Torah, it had not been widely published as the Mishnah. It was not until the destruction of the Second Temple that the First Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince in 188 CE.
The Mishnah is part of the Talmud, an enormous tract compiled over many centuries by great sages and scholars. There are two great branches of the Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, written first and never fully completed and edited, and the Babylonian Talmud, compiled by exiled rabbis living in Babylonia. The sages of both Talmuds were aware of each other and communicated with each other, but since the Babylonian Talmud is the more complete and accessible version of this wisdom committed to paper, it is considered the authoritative Talmud. The analysis of the laws expounded in the Mishnah became the commentary of the Gemara, and agadata — stories about the wealth and breadth of existence. If the Torah is the source document, the Talmud is the encyclopedia.
The Talmud is not a simple cataloguing of the law and what is expected. It is one long, intricate, intense, and never-ending debate among sages, stretching across time and space and bending time within its pages.
If you look at a page of the Talmud, it is pretty amazing (I’ve included a page of the Babylonian Talmud as this week’s illustration). In the center, like a kernel or a germ inside a seed, is the passage of Torah being considered. In a ring right outside of that is the Mishnah, the Oral law concerning that passage. Outside of that is the Gemarah, the commentary on the law. And outside of that are the additional commentaries, providing fuel for Talmudic arguments through the ages, continued by the students who sit and study the passage together today.
An additional source of enlightenment regarding the Hebrew Bible are midrash — stories, parables that seek to explain gaps in the written torah. In midrash you will find stories of angels, demons, paradise, the messiah, etc. The midrash contain folk wisdom, rabbinic wisdom, and everything in-between. These stories have been told from the beginning of things and continue to be told today, an ever-evolving body of stories meant to illuminate gaps, silences in the central texts of the Hebrew Bible.
I am leaving out a lot…won’t even go into later Talmudic sages, the great legal thinkers, political revolutions, reform movements of all kinds. All beyond my central topic, mysticism and angels.
Where does Jewish mysticism fit into all of this, you ask?
Mysticism in the Jewish tradition is an esoteric study of the hidden mysteries of the universe. It is a secret knowledge, powerful and dangerous enough to be accessible only to the fully-initiated. And in order to understand the wisdom conveyed through the mystical tradition, a student needs to be fully versed in all of the above — the Torah, the Oral Torah, and the commentary over the centuries on the Law.
I believe that Jewish mysticism encompasses far more than the written books of the Kabbalah, and the study of those books. It is my opinion that the folk knowledge, the healing amulets and rituals, the beliefs of ordinary people, are also rooted in a search for a mystical understanding of the official orthodoxies of the religion.
Before the foundational texts of the Kabbalah were written and studied, people who sought an esoteric understanding of Jewish mysticism studied and wrote. I could write a whole post about this (and probably will!) but Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism are not necessarily completely overlapping terms.
Kabbalah means Occult (Hidden) Tradition. The foundational text for Kabbalah is the Zohar, reputed to have been written by Simon bar Yochai during the years of Roman conquest of Israel (approximately 100 CE). Rabbi Moses de Leon published the Zohar in his lifetime (the 11th-12th century) but never claimed authorship, attributing it to bar Yochai.
After Rabbi de Leon, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, an incredible convocation of scholars studied together in the holy city of Tzfat, in the north of Israel, at the time under Ottoman rule. The great mystic Isaac Luria (the Lion) wrote very little during his lifetime, and is reputed to have performed a number of miracles. His disciples wrote down his teachings. I’ve been to Tzfat, and today it has an otherworldly, eerie aspect to it (though it has also become a tourist paradise. Somehow the two sides of sacred/profane coexist there without a problem).
The kabbalistic strain of Jewish thought, as it flowered in Tzfat, was the precursor to Hasidism, which brought this spirituality into everyday life.
Before I delve into all of these different schools of thought, their texts and teachers, in later posts, I wanted to pause to consider the admonitions of the masters of Kabbalah. This is reckoned secret knowledge, inaccessible to all but the properly initiated. In other words, if you haven’t studied the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the commentary on these texts over the centuries, you cannot fully understand the concepts and the philosophy of Kabbalah. You’re supposed to be married, over forty…
Further, not only is this knowledge secret, but it is dangerous. It can lead you astray, to seeking magic and miracles for their own sakes, not for the greater glory of the One Creator. So will we get struck my lightning for even talking about this stuff?
Here’s my take on this. I believe there is a mystery at the heart of the world, that I can never solve this mystery, and furthermore that some things are better left in the realm of the mysterious. We don’t need to know the secret of the mystery to treasure it, and celebrate it, and find inspiration in it, and my discussion of Kabbalah will reveal the existence of such secrets, but of course not the answer to the riddle of them. Just knowing the mystery is there is enough for me…
As a writer, I also respect the power of secrecy. Julia Cameron, of Artist’s Way fame, notes that the first rule of magic is containment. I can tell you as a writer that keeping my work in progress a secret to the outer world gives it time to grow, to develop without outside influence. The few times I’ve talked about a WIP too early, all the air has gone out of it and made it dead and boring…if you’re a new writer, try keeping a new project safely under wraps until it is finished and see if the veil of secrecy helps you too.
So that’s enough for a start! Next week: Angels. The emissaries of the mystery. What are they, who are they, and have you ever met one? And then after that we will talk more about Kabbalistic thought and the implications for our world. In the next few weeks I’ll give you a road map so that we know where we’re going.
Here is a list of resources for you that will hopefully get you started if this long litany of texts has only whetted your appetite for more.
The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginsberg