This, the mother of all questions, is addressed in turn by the various streams of Torah thought, each after its own style.
The Talmud states, simply and succinctly, “I was created to serve my Creator.” The moralistic-oriented works of Mussar describe the purpose of life as the refinement of one’s character traits. The Zohar says that G-d created us “in order that His creations should know Him.” Master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria offered the following reason for creation: G-d is the essence of good, and the nature of good is to bestow goodness. But goodness cannot be bestowed when there is no one to receive it. To this end, G-d created our world — so that there should be recipients of His goodness.
Chassidic teaching explains that these reasons, as well as the reasons given by other kabbalistic and philosophical works, are but the various faces of a singular divine desire for creation, as expressed in the various “worlds” or realms of G-d’s creation. Chassidism also offers its own formulation of this divine desire: that we “Make a home for G-d in the material world.”
“The World a Home”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
If you are a traditional Christian, the above-quoted set of paragraphs may present words and concepts with which you are not familiar. Most people have heard of the Talmud, but the Zohar as the primary text for Kabbalah, the prevalent form of Jewish Mysticism in the world today, may be rather alien to you. If you have heard of them, chances are you haven’t heard anything good. Not because Jewish mysticism is inherently bad, but because it is a trail that leads away from the Bible and particularly strays from the good news of Jesus Christ.
But in holding those views, Christians tend to forget that we also have a rich mystic heritage or for that matter, that “Kabbalah was popular among Christian intellectuals during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, who reinterpreted its doctrines to fit into their Christian dogma” (from Judaism 101: Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism). There is even a suggestion that modern Christians can study Kabbalah and still remain within the tenets of the faith.
Granted, that opinion is controversial, but the fact that someone can even ask such a question presents us with the possibility that Jewish mysticism is a relevant subject of study for a follower of Jesus.
No, I don’t consider myself a mystic, although I have done a bit of research and am fond of the tales of the Chassidim, many of which involve mystic themes. I consider mystic stories as a sort of metaphor or even poetic expression, not to (necessarily) be taken literally, but rather as tales or fables that teach a moral or ethical principle. I’m also fond of the writings of Paul Philip Levertoff who, as a Chassidic Jew who came to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, retained his unique point of view as a Chassid and wrote of the Master from a “mystic perspective” that I believe sheds illumination on many mysteries surrounding Moshiach (I’m particularly fond of Love and the Messianic Age which I previously reviewed).
But I’m not writing this meditation today to advocate for Jewish mysticism.
Church tradition holds that Matthew wrote the first gospel. According to Papias, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and each [subsequent gospel writer] interpreted them as best he could.” This implies that the original gospel written by Matthew may have been a sayings-gospel, something akin to the Gospel of Thomas, which consists of a catalogue of sayings attributed to Yeshua, completely disconnected from any narrative context. Eusebius says that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew just before leaving the holy land…
According to tradition, Matthew composed his Hebrew Gospel for the benefit of disciples he left behind in Judea…
Unfortunately, the original gospel Matthew composed has been lost. The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew mentioned by Papias and Eusebius is not the same as our canonical Matthew. Our Gospel of Matthew represents a somewhat later stage of development.
-D. Thomas Lancaster
Commentary on “The First Voyage of Thomas”
from the readings for Torah Portion Vayak’hel (“He gathered”)
Torah Club Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
What I am writing about today is the relevancy of extra-Biblical texts and information sources as part of studying the Bible and educating ourselves as disciples of Christ.
Pretty strange notion, huh?
Not really. So far in my study of the Torah Club, my understanding of the Book of Acts and the journeys of Paul and his companions to spread the gospel message “first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles” has been enhanced and elucidated by the historical and scholarly information Lancaster has added to his commentaries. How can we understand what Paul, James, Peter, and the other apostles were experiencing and comprehend their actions if we allow ourselves to remain ignorant of the cultures, societies, laws, mores, and other information historians and other academicians have gleaned over the centuries of the world of first-century Judaism and the spread of early Christianity into the world outside of Jerusalem?
The Gospel of Thomas was mentioned earlier and what we know of it strongly suggests that it not be considered a reliable source of information about the early apostolic “adventures” into the lands to the east of Israel or any other parts of the world. Nevertheless, these documents exist and it would be irresponsible of us to ignore their study, even if for no other reason than to confirm or refute their accuracy.
Tales of a Hebrew (more likely Aramaic) language version of the Gospel of Matthew have been in circulation for a very long time, but we must remember that not one shred of physical, tangible evidence in the form of Matthew’s early gospel document or fragment thereof has been produced to confirm it ever existed. It’s not that it can’t have existed since the writings of Papias and Eusebius offer some support, and certainly the possibility fires the imagination, but even in the community of faith, we must separate established fact from wishful thinking.
But there are tremendous gaps in our knowledge base regarding the first century and the “acts of the apostles.” Can Paul and his small body of companions have been solely responsible for the spread of the gospel message of Christ to all of the Gentile lands? Did Luke only record a small sample of what really happened, who else was sent out, where they went, what they did, and the communities of the Messiah they established in the four corners of the then-civilized world?
So history, archaeology, literature, and similar bodies of study should all be considered valid information sources to add to our collection of methods by which we understand the world of the apostles and the prophets and well as the Word of God. But what about speculation such as an early Hebrew or Aramaic gospel of Matthew?
Lancaster’s endnote (18) for the above-referenced commentary on the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew states (TCv6, pg 581):
This original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is not the same as our Greek, canonical Matthew, though the latter may be a Greek adaptation of Matthew’s original Hebrew manuscript. On the other hand, most synoptic-gospel scholars agree that canonical Matthew is an adaption from the Greek of the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Matthew cannot be both a Greek translation of the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and a redaction of the Gospel of Mark. Canonical Matthew does contain non-Markan elements, some in common with Luke, and quite a bit that is unique to Matthew alone, but for the most part, Matthew seems to depend upon Mark as his primary source. This does not preclude the likely possibility, however, that the author of canonical Matthew had Hebrew Matthew in hand to consult and compare with Mark. Perhaps the Gospel of Matthew bears that name because its author used Hebrew Matthew as one of his sources.
Recent attempts to identify “Shem-Tov Matthew” as Matthew’s original Hebrew Gospel are not founded on good scholarship.
In case you missed it, one of the things Lancaster (and many other scholars besides) suggests is that Gospel of Matthew may not have actually been written by the Matthew we see in the gospels. However, the main point is that without concrete evidence, we can only speculate about a “Hebrew Matthew” gospel. We can’t say that it ever really existed or if it did, what it might have said.
Still, it is compelling and it at least opens the door to the possibility that one day such a “Hebrew Matthew” (or some fragment) may appear. If it does, we don’t have to be completely shocked.
But that’s still a far cry from mysticism. Are mystic writings and philosophy ever a valid study for a “true believer?” For that matter, what is “mysticism?” According to Merriam-Webster.com:
- the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
- the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)
When we pray, it is as if we are trying to draw God down to us in whatever place we happen to be, so that we can experience Him, encounter Him, speak to Him. In a mystic experience, it’s as if we are trying to elevate ourselves to connect to God where God is.
That’s probably one of the reasons that I don’t dive deeply into the mystic realms. I’m afraid it’ll work and I’ll suddenly find myself confronted with mysteries and powers beyond my ability to comprehend or even tolerate. I think most religious people are more comfortable with some sort of veil or barrier between themselves (ourselves) and an infinite, all-powerful, all-creative, awesome, majestic, uniquely, radically One God!
Or to use Boaz Michael’s introduction to the Love and the Messianic Age Commentary as one possible response:
Love and the Messianic Age is not a book that will appeal to everyone. It is not easy reading. It deals with large abstract theological concepts in a short summary form. Levertoff’s language is terse, densely packed, and often as cryptic as the sources he’s citing.
Kabbalistic literature is, generally speaking, comparable to a large, sprawling city with many treacherous back-alleys, dangerous neighborhoods, and sudden, unexpected dead-ends. Even with a good map and a good sense for direction, the visitor is likely to find himself lost and confused and may easily stray into a bad part of town. Rather than trying to find your way through this maze-like metropolis on your own, we recommend you follow a reliable guide. Paul Philip Levertoff is just such a guide.
Assuming you’re not a true mystic and devoted or even driven to extend yourself beyond the mortal plane of existence and to, like Paul tells of (supposedly) himself, be caught up to the third heaven…caught up to paradise” in order to “hear things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” mystic writings, as I mentioned before, can be treated as metaphor, allegory, and as morality tales based on Jewish and Christian concepts that illustrate something we otherwise would find more difficult to comprehend. Mystic writings can also encompass speculation, debate, discussion on matters of God, Divinity, Messiah, and Heavenly realms that we might not have a language to describe in any other manner.
It is the world that exists beyond our own and for which we have no proof or even faith to understand. Mysticism gives us permission to talk about what otherwise would be unmentionable, those thoughts and feelings that exist only behind a shadowy glass, a darkened mirror, that we know we should not inquire after, but that for some people, are completely irresistible.
Ezekiel had his mystic experience. So did Paul and John (see the Book of Revelation). It was Levertoff who read the Gospel of John and said that he could not understand how Christians were able to comprehend those writings since John’s Gospel was so much like the mystic Chassidic texts on which he had been raised and educated.
Speculation into additional or extra-Biblical texts isn’t evil and neither is an investigation into mysticism. They both have their benefits and values but they (especially mysticism) are also full of landmines and trap doors. As Michael wrote, trying to navigate the maze of the mystics is “comparable to a large, sprawling city with many treacherous back-alleys, dangerous neighborhoods, and sudden, unexpected dead-ends.” If you don’t know what you’re doing or you don’t have a capable guide, it’s easy to get lost, abandoned, mugged, beaten, and left for dead on some dark and foggy dead-end street that is more akin to a Constantinople back alley of a hundred years ago or a story narrated by Rod Serling.
If you’re not sure, then don’t go there. If you’re willing to risk it, there is some possibility of reward, but there are no guarantees.
But there’s something compelling about a mystery. There’s a bit of the siren’s call in going beyond the well-known neighborhoods and breaching good judgment and common sense. The Bible must be the tangible foundation for everything we know and believe about our faith but having said that, it doesn’t mean we are confined only to a single concrete slab. As long as we keep a foot on solid rock, we may sometimes take the risk to putting the other outside, perhaps as Paul did, or John, or Ezekiel, and seeing what lies beyond.
Sometimes it’s a fool’s errand, and sometimes it’s part of the strange path we must walk in answering the call to encounter God.
How else can we answer questions like, Why are we here?
Don’t take the world and its darkness so seriously—it is not as real as it feigns to be. It is only a creation, and it is being re-created out of absolutely nothing at every moment.
The only thing real about it is its purpose of being—that you should purify it.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
What about me? Actually, I’m a pretty cautious fellow. I don’t like to go off the beaten path all that often. But every once in a while, just a like a certain home-loving Bilbo Baggins, the Took family character takes over and I go off on a small, mysterious adventure.