A religion that is limited to purely systematized theology does not exist. Mysticism is always present—Turov

We are talking about mysticism in Judaism and Jewish mysticism with Ihor Turov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, who is a senior scholarly associate of the I. F. Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Sciences and a researcher of Jewish religious mysticism.

Vasyl Shandro: Mysticism and religion—is that not a contradiction in terms?

Ihor Turov: No. Any religion in its developed state consists of two layers. One examines the Creator’s otherworldly powers as a very distant and mysterious instance inaccessible to people, which must be served with the aid of a certain ritual. The other is the reverse: We have certain paths to higher powers, to God. Human nature is such that one does not work without the other. A religion that is limited to purely systematized theology and rituals does not exist. There are always mystical realms, special practices, and experience.

Vasyl Shandro: What forms of the mystical are most visible in Judaism? Can they be compared to other religions?

Ihor Turov: Religious mystics borrowed a lot from one another. Suffice it to say that a phenomenon in Europe known as the “Christian Cabala” appeared in the thirteenth century. Christian scholars who studied the works of Jewish mystics believed that it was part of the heritage that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai.

At the same time, certain ideas derived from Christian mysticism also influenced Jewish mysticism. In other words, a certain cycle is taking place, but of course, there are a lot of works in Jewish mysticism that differ markedly from Christian mysticism in terms of their composition and ideas.

Vasyl Shandro: The Middle Ages are perhaps the most visible stage in history where religion is closely intertwined with the phenomenon of the mystical. Can we say the same about Judaism in the medieval period?

Ihor Turov: Mystical ideas appear in Judaism in the Age of Antiquity. In the Middle Ages, we already have quite a powerful development. I am talking about hundreds of authors, an exceptionally large body of texts, part of which became inseparable from the sacred texts of Judaism. Some, of course, are known only to a narrow circle of researchers.

Vasyl Shandro: Does mysticism not contradict religious dogmas?

Ihor Turov: As for the Catholic world, a certain corpus of mystical texts was written by people who are recognized spiritual authorities, such as Meister Eckhart. In Orthodoxy, mysticism was more a part of the spiritual practice of monks; the Jesus Prayer, etc. As for the Judaic tradition, the Talmudic corpus contains extracts from mystical texts and overtly mystical layers. During the Middle Ages, it gradually acquires recognized status, and the basic corpus of canonical texts comes to include a large number of mystical works; first and foremost, the Zohar (Book of Radiance) and the Book of Creation, which scholars date to between the first and third centuries A.D.

Vasyl Shandro: Is this mystical knowledge the achievement of only a select group of people?

Ihor Turov: Beginning in the thirteenth century, there was a struggle between two trends in Jewish mysticism. Some insisted that everyone should know everything. Others believed that it should be available only to a small circle of the chosen, the perfect. Theoretical battles took place and continue to take place. But if we look at the Ukrainian lands, there is a movement here in the eighteenth century, which simply takes mystical texts and inserts them into public sermons.

In Ukraine, serious Jewish mysticism appeared significantly earlier. For example, in the fifteenth century, there was a famous Kabbalist rabbi named Moses of Kyiv, whose works are still studied today by Kabbalists. He belonged to the school of the Byzantine Kabbalah. With the emergence of Hasidism, a unique format of Jewish mysticism is created, which fascinates Eastern and Central Europe. It may be said that all this is the specific product of definite cultural interaction between the Jewish and the Ukrainian.

Vasyl Shandro: Is this about the influence of folklore on the mystical, including on religion?

Ihor Turov: Undoubtedly. We can speak about the existence of elite mysticism and popular mysticism.  Folklore has its own perception of all these theologically complex things, their certain simplification. We also see the opposite process, where certain ideas of folklore affect the elites. To a certain extent, this also exists in all religions, including Judaism. In Ukraine, there was some contact between the scholarly elite, which dealt with mystical secrets, and the general community of believers. A continuous dialogue on these topics began between the two.

One of the most iconic Jewish religious figures in Ukraine is the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem. It is said that in his youth, he worked as a guide who took children to study in the synagogue. Satan decided to stop him and appeared on his path in the form of a werewolf, trying to prevent him from taking the children to study the Torah. Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem hit him hard between the eyes with a stick. In other words, what is emphasized is that he was no ordinary fellow because he was able to hit Satan. This is quite a well-known story.

The reincarnation of souls is a doctrine found in Judaism. Of course, it exists in an elite and complex form. But the Jews of central Ukraine were familiar with the plot of a folktale in which some events in life turned out to be reactions to the actions of the characters in past lives. What we see now, what seems to be something terrible and unpleasant, is only atonement for sins committed in past lives.

The Kabbalah becomes officially accessible in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. When it appeared is another question. Before that, there were a lot of different mystical schools that are not formally considered Kabbalah. When Kabbalah appears on the scene, it squeezes out other currents of Jewish mysticism.

Vasyl Shandro: Did this knowledge undergo radical changes from the twelfth century?

Ihor Turov: Judaism is first and foremost an Eastern religion. The majority of our people perceive Judaism as a religion of the Old Testament. In fact, Judaism is more similar to what we see in Hinduism; this is Eastern mysticism. How is Eastern mysticism constructed? There is a distinguished teacher, a guru, a Kabbalist; every such teacher has his own kind of teaching; around him forms a school of followers; everything else is nearby. These schools interact with each other. Of course, evolution has taken place and is still happening to this day.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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