Tag Archives: mysticism

Schrödinger’s Free Will and God’s Sovereignty

quantum-mechanics-weirdAnyone who ventures more than ankle deep into the weirdness of quantum mechanics quickly realizes that reality is not what we once thought it was. From the time it was introduced, its most respected scientists have groped for new understandings of the nature of reality, often turning to mysticism and religion for answers.

Max Planck, who planted the first seed of the quantum model, was convinced by his studies that “There is no matter as such…the mind is the matrix of all matter.” Erwin Schrodinger, who established the basis of the wave mechanics behind QM, theorized that individual consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe. Wolfang Pauli, another of QM’s most significant pioneers, turned to Carl Jung for clues of the mysteries with which he was dealing, writing essays about “the mystic experience of one-ness.”

In case you were hoping for a consensus, Nick Herbert (“Quantum Reality,” Random House, 1985, Chapter One) counts no less than eight diverse versions of reality generated by quantum physicists, several of them quite mystical, all of them—including the most pragmatic and most realist—exceptionally weird.

The real problem is that all of them seem to work.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Quantum Reality and Ancient Wisdom”
Originally written for a symposium on the works of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, held at Brandeis University in the summer of 2000.

I know that Quantum Mechanics (QM) and mysticism tend to turn people off, especially when you try to put them together, but for the way my mind works, this actually makes a lot of sense. I recently read John A. Sanford’s book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, which applied Jungian psychology heavily to the symbolism in John’s gospel. While I thought Sanford’s attempt to do so was anachronistic, reading how QM pioneer Wolfang Pauli consulted Carl Jung in attempting to understand the “weirdness” of what Pauli was addressing makes me realize something else was going on.

I’m not going to attempt the creation of some grand literary treatment of mysticism and QM, but I do want to revisit an old mystery and attempt to use aspects of QM, not necessarily as a solution, but as a proposal.

I’ve written a number of blog posts on the Calvinism vs Arminianism debate, thanks to my discussions with my Pastor. This includes The Bible as a Quantum Cookbook, which tries to put QM, Calvin, Schrödinger’s cat, and Talmud in the same hypothetical room together.

But I’ve wanted to write this sequel for a few weeks now and the opportunity presented itself.

I’m not the first to have this idea, though. There’s even a comment on a blog post providing a parody on TULIP that is relevant:

In a quantum universe i don’t see why one can’t be 100% Calvinist and 100% Arminian. Even closer to home, I don’t see why one can’t be both a post- and a pre-millenarian. OK, I’ll confess I don’t know anything about physics or even whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead. But I do know that human language is not adequate to frame propositional statements about eternal realities. This isn’t relativism…things which occured in time (and in the scripural account of time) like the resurection are subject to the law of non-contradition. It either happened or it didn’t. But we can’t be led into bad metaphysics by the soterological speculations of the 16th and 17th centuries…Calvin and Arminius respectively.

-Mark Sunwall

So what have I got?

Schrodingers_catProbably nothing new, except that I have the need to write this if, for no other reason, than to get a few things out of my head and into the blogosphere.

You can find out pretty much anything you want to know about Schrödinger’s cat at Wikipedia, but in short, Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. That means no actual cat was killed or allowed to live simultaneously or in separate states as a result.

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

What does that have to do with the Calvinism and Arminianism debate? As you probably already know, the debate centers around whether man has free will to choose salvation or if God’s sovereignty forces us to have no choice. Can man participate with God in his salvation or must God unilaterally choose for man?

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

-Yogi Berra

If I apply Schrödinger’s thought experiment to the conflict, I come up with a resounding “I don’t know.” It’s the difference between Classical and Quantum physics.

For the Jew with traditional leanings, this could be welcome news. The old determinist view of reality accepted by Newtonian mechanics was certainly at odds with the classic Jewish worldview. Could QM allow once again for a world of divine providence, miracles and free choice, a world in which the creatures interact with their creator? Could it perhaps even provide us a better understanding of that legacy perspective?

-Rabbi Freeman

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-6 (NASB)

Under heavenAccording to David, there is no inconsistency with our observation of the universe around us and our understanding of God. God made the universe and everything in it to point to the knowledge of Him. In other words, God doesn’t play “hide the ball” with the universe. What you see is what you get. Paul said the same thing in Romans 1:20, which is why no one has any excuse for a lack of knowledge of a Creative God.

But if Classical Mechanics doesn’t map to the Jewish view of the universe, is Judaism wrong or were the classical physicists? Again, that’s too big a question for me to answer, but I’m liking QM more and more all the time.

OK, no one really thinks that if you actually tried Schrödinger’s thought experiment with a real cat (which would be cruel) that you’d end up with a cat that is dead and alive at the same time. At the macro level, the cat would either be dead or alive. But Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics works pretty well, at least in theory, at the subatomic level. What does it do when you enter into the realm of the supernatural and the mystical?

Chassidic thought doesn’t have a problem with incorporating mysticism into its internal map of how man journeys with God, but that’s not going to satisfy the either/or literalist. The problem is, the either/or literalist is probably going to have trouble with the uncertainty of existence proposed by QM and thus the latest models for how we think things work in the universe around us.

And if you think QM is strange and even bizarre, imagine how things would look to you if you could actually experience God the way Ezekiel did, the way Paul did, or the way John did in each of their mystic experiences as recorded in the Bible. Those events make the puzzle of Schrödinger’s cat seem as simple as riding a bicycle.

Need one remind our orthodox Jewish scientists, who still feel embarrassed about some old-fashioned Torah truths, in the face of scientific hypotheses, that Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked, so that it is quite unscientific to hold that one event is an inevitable consequence of another, but only most probable? Most scientists have accepted this principle of uncertainty (enunciated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927) as being intrinsic to the whole universe. The 19th century dogmatic, mechanistic, and deterministic attitude of science is gone. The modern scientist no longer expects to find Truth in science. The current and universally accepted view of science itself is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities; not with certainties or absolutes.

-Rabbi Freeman quoting the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

I’m sure this or any other part of Rabbi Freeman’s article won’t convince anyone who thinks in either/or terms to entertain the idea that, from a human being’s point of view, man has total free will and God is totally sovereign at the same time, and yet that’s the only reasonable answer that I can see. Until we actually look in the box, the cat is both dead and alive. Until we can acquire God’s point of view of the free will/sovereignty process, we have total free will and God is totally sovereign at the same time.

The thing is, Schrödinger can look inside the box anytime he likes and that sets the status of the cat on one side or the other: it’s either dead or alive once the box is opened. People can’t access God’s point of view directly. When we “lift the lid of the box,” we are opening the Bible. But the Bible is God’s viewpoint turned into human language. In the moment of “translation” from God’s thoughts to text on paper, we lose a great deal of meaning. We shift from perfection to sufficiency. We open the Bible and the cat is either dead or alive. But the state of the cat depends on which part of the Bible we’re reading.

Torah at SinaiHuman free will or a totally sovereign God? Somehow the answer is both. But if QM experts are weirded out by their own work, how much more should we be weirded out by the universe that God created us to live in?

If you absolutely have to come down on one side or the other of this debate, go right ahead. That means you are picking and choosing those parts of the Bible that either support man’s free will or that support God’s absolute sovereignty. That means you are dragging God and the Bible down into the mud with you. OK, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says that the Torah is in the mud with us, so to speak, but I believe God, through Moses, was telling the Children of Israel that observing the mitzvot wasn’t an impossible task, not limiting the nature and character of the Word of God itself.

I think the Bible acts as sort of a “translation” of the Divine thought of God as filtered through the personalities and lives of the human writers. By definition, God and human beings had to enter into a partnership to create the Bible. Sure, God could have written it all by Himself without any human involvement, but he chose to let us participate. Does that make God any less sovereign and His Word any less perfect because people were also involved in the Bible’s creation?

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies (if I may take some liberties) that Calvinism and Arminianism are simultaneously correct and incorrect. Yet, when one “looks in the box,” so to speak, it seems to be one or the other. Only God knows what’s going on in the box without lifting the lid.

The Christian faith is kaleidoscopic, and most of us are color-blind.

-N.T. Wright
from his Forward to the book
The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

In the Midst of the Flaming God

in-the-midst-of-fireQuestion: The writings of Kabbalah and Chassidism speak of four worlds—Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. Where are these “worlds”? Why haven’t any of them been discovered yet?

Response: When I try to relate to these worlds, I picture each of them as another lens through which we can view reality. The higher the world, the sharper and clearer the lens—so that everything in that world is a harmonious expression of G‑d’s simple oneness. The lower the world, the more it feels otherness—as though it never had a creator to begin with. Things become fragmented, discordant, even downright ugly, as that sublime oneness is lost.

We live in the bottom-level, physical world of Asiyah—meaning “actuality”—a reality in which G‑dliness is completely hidden. Our lenses allow us to see nothing more than the end-product of all the processes that came before it. We see a table—not the divine energy that keeps it in existence. We marvel over a sunset—as though it were just another natural phenomenon, rather than a masterpiece of a Master Artist. We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d. It’s no coincidence that the word for “world” in Hebrew, olam, shares the same root as he’elem, meaning “hidden.” Everything but the most outer façade is hidden from our view.

What keeps our prescription so low?

-Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar
“Where Are All the ‘Worlds’?”

I know Kabbalah isn’t for everyone and mysticism gives most Christians the nervous “shakes,” but for me, it explores the answers to certain questions that we otherwise must avoid completely. It also allows me to put into perspective the things in this world (and the next) that drive me crazy.

We live in the bottom-level, physical world…in which G‑dliness is completely hidden.

Exactly. And yet often we behave as if our “bargain basement world” has all the answers we’ll ever need to understand God and who we are in Him. I’m not suggesting that we all start taking “mystic trips” into the upper regions of reality and attempt to experience God in His own realm, but we should consider that we don’t know as much as we think we know.

I don’t think that the Bible has all the answers, either. I do think, however, that it has sufficient answers for us. If it had all the answers, humanity (or at least Christianity and Judaism) wouldn’t have such a thing as a mystic tradition.

Some would say that the “worlds” Rabbi Cotlar is discussing have an objective reality on other planes of existence, and others, most others probably, believe that these “worlds” are just mental abstractions we use to discuss what otherwise couldn’t be discussed because we have no language and no conceptualization of what it is to exist beyond what our five senses can detect.

I know I’ll be criticized for even mentioning the “K” (Kabbalah) word, but think about it. If you are a religious Jew or Christian, by definition, you’ve taken on board certain beliefs about the spiritual and supernatural worlds. You believe in angels, and archangels, and (if you’re Christian) God being able to manifest Himself in human form (though that is not His totality according to Derek Leman).

We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d.

I bet you never thought that was a “mystic” statement, did you? Most of us, even those of us who are “religious,” tend to pat ourselves on the back when we do well in business, get a raise, start and run a successful business, or pump up the number of “zeros” in our annual income. And yet, every morsel of food we consume, every breath we take, every beat of our heart, every day that dawns, would never occur apart from the will of our Father.

How can we not believe in other realms beyond our own?

But then again, it isn’t the belief in other mystic realms that’s the problem, but the thought that any human being should know anything about them, aside from what we read in the Bible. That’s typically what hangs most people up.

The basics of the teachings of the kabbalah – upon which all these texts expound and elaborate – were not invented by the human mind. They are teachings that were orally passed down through the generations, from teacher to disciple, dating back to Moses himself.

And Moses did go there and back. He spent months on Mount Sinai wandering through the various spiritual worlds and then communicated his findings back to us. That which he didn’t personally experience was revealed to him by the Creator of all these spiritual worlds—together with the rest of the Written and Oral Torah. Even after he descended the mountain, he continued to learn directly from G‑d for the next forty years.

-Rabbi Menachem Posner
“How can any human claim to know of ‘other worlds’?”

That won’t be very convincing to most Christians not to mention a lot of Jews. But how about this?

Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 24:18

So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 34:28

lost-in-the-fogThat might not be convincing either if you just think Moses and God sat together for forty days and forty nights around a really big campfire on the top of a mountain. But did God come down or Moses go up…or something in between? Whatever it was, Moses entered into the presence of the living God, His Divine Presence, and was not consumed by fire and could live in God’s presence and not die, and could do without either food or water for well over a month.

If you believe that actually happened and isn’t just some metaphor or fable, then you believe in the spiritual, the supernatural, the mystic encounter of man with God.

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

Ezekiel 1:1

Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

Daniel 7:2-3

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

Revelation 1:9-10, 12, 13-17

Each of these experiences stretches, pushes, pulls, and distorts the experience of “reality” of each of the human beings involved beyond what we would consider “normal.” Moses, Ezekiel, Paul, and John each had their own mystic encounters with the realm of Heaven in ways that could not be fully explained to the rest of us who have (presumably) not shared such experiences.

If such is recorded in the Bible we know (as well as we can know the Bible, that is), what mystic experiences have human beings encountered that have not been recorded or that have been recorded in what we consider less than reliable texts?

Who knows?

My point is not to sell you on mysticism. I’m hardly a mystic. I make no claim to otherworldly journeys. I’m only suggesting that no matter what you have learned, no matter how well you are educated, no matter how much you pat yourself on the back for your erudite understanding of the Scriptures, and no matter what sort of “Holy Spirit high” you believe you are on, you really don’t know as much as you think you do. I know I don’t.

sky-above-you-god1To reduce God down to what we can read in the Bible, even if we believe that the Holy Spirit is giving us personal instruction and whispering little “secrets” of interpretation in our ears, is arrogant in the extreme.

It’s understandable that in feeling small before God and probably in the midst of other people, we should want to exalt ourselves. But this reductionist thinking also makes God small, like we are, and all but eliminates any sense of awe, wonder, and majesty at even the contemplation of the awesome, wonderful, infinite, exalted, measureless, Ein Sof, Radically One, creative God.

The Ancient of Days is above all things and beyond human sight and comprehension. But the One like a Son of Man shares his nature fully, being One with him. The Ancient of Days sends the Son of Man into created things to rule from within. The Ancient of Days is transcendent completely but the Son of Man is immanent and is with us. The unity of the Father and Son is absolute, so we cannot say the Son is “part of God,” for God has no parts.

-Derek Leman

Trying to discuss the Divinity of Jesus “is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse,” to quote a certain Scottish engineer from the twenty-third century. In other words, it’s at least extremely difficult if not darn near impossible.

And yet, how can we not try to talk about and even to comprehend that which surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together with Him?

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

Luke 9:28-36

What do you do, as a simple fisherman who is learning from a rural, itinerant teacher, when your teacher suddenly starts glowing bright white and mysteriously is joined by the two greatest Prophets in the history of your people (and you have no idea how you recognize these two men who lived many centuries before you were born…and there are no photos or paintings of them anywhere), and these two great men start speaking to your teacher in a close and intimate manner….and then a voice from Heaven tells you that your teacher is the Son of God and commands you to listen to him?

What do you do when your reality experiences a direct intersection with the mystic realm of God?

I don’t know. But one thing I do know. If you have any sort of sense at all, you realize just how small you are and that, in fact, you don’t know anything close to what you thought you did.

I don’t either.

When’s the last time you were sitting in the midst of the flaming God on a mountain?

147 days.

The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and Other Mysteries

midnight-good-evilWhy are we here?

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?

gospel-of-thomasNot 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.

hebrew-matthew-shem-tovIn 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:

  1. the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
  2. 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.

ezekiels-visionEzekiel 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
“Serious Darkness”
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.

Playing in the Sandbox

In order for the Shechinah to dwell within the Worlds and their creatures, there must therefore be a “garment” which serves to conceal its light. Only then can creation receive the Shechinah and not be nullified out of existence.

But what manner of “garment” can possibly conceal the Shechinah and yet itself not be affected by it, so that it, too, will not become nullified? Since the Shechinah is the source of all creation, it is of course the source of the concealing “garment” too.

In other words: If the Shechinah is manifest in the “garment”, i.e., if the garment is enveloped by its source, then it follows that it should be nullified out of existence, just as the sun’s rays cease to exist within the body of the sun. In effect, this would make the “garment” cease serving as a “garment” to conceal the Shechinah.

The Alter Rebbe anticipates this question by stating that the “garment” is G-d’s Will and wisdom, which are enclothed in Torah and the mitzvot. Since this “garment” belongs to a plane even higher than (the source of the world’s vitality known as) the Shechinah, it is not nullified by it.

However, asks the Rebbe, according to this explanation the question becomes even stronger: If creation cannot receive the light of the Shechinah, then surely it cannot receive the light of the “garment” which is even higher than the Shechinah.

Today’s Tanya Lesson
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 52 (Listen online)
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun

The relationship with God, the great, infinite Creator, the unknowable and endless Ein Sof, with the earthly manifestation of His will, the Shechinah, which descended upon the Tabernacle in the desert and inhabited it, is a great mystery. Interestingly enough, it’s a mystery that virtually no one in Christianity discusses or really seems to care about. However, we see in the above quote from “today’s Tanya lesson,” that it is of great interest to Jewish Kabbalists, but Jewish mysticism is far outside the range of interest of most Christians, which I suppose is a good idea.

In the mainstream church, my experience of religious education is that it’s rather boring and superficial. Granted, I haven’t been to a traditional Sunday school or Christian Bible study in well over a decade, but even at the time I was attending church as a “young Christian” (as opposed to being a “young person”), it seemed pretty “canned” to me.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of purely “crazy” stuff, published mostly on the Internet, about “revelations” and “secrets of the Torah” being spouted off by so-called “prophets” and “Messianics” (mostly Gentile as far as I can tell). Derek Leman has started collecting samples of this “craziness” in a blog series he calls The “Messianic” Wall of Weird” (a not-so-subtle reference to the television series Smallville).

Finding reliable teaching is something of a challenge. Not that it’s impossible, but you have to be a fairly stable personality and be willing to be sceptical to tell the difference between fluff, craziness, and potential illumination. I say “potential illumination” because in all of our much vaunted education and research into the Bible, we still aren’t that sure of our facts. Most of us seem to grasp some basic truths, that God is One, that Jesus is Lord, the Savior of the world, and King of the Jews, that faith without action is dead, but many of the “little details” (OK, maybe they’re not so little) that are so important to us (and maybe to God) manage to elude us.

For instance, what about the relationship between what, in Judaism, is called the Ein Sof and the Shechinah? I have tried discussing a similar topic, the relationship between Jesus and God, and received a few rebukes, mainly because I don’t buy into the traditional Christian doctrine of how the deity of Jesus is supposed to work (and again, I’m not saying Jesus isn’t divine…I just want a better explanation about what that means).

No, I’m not trying to open that can of worms again, but I do want to point out that most of us seek our comfort zone, which includes the zone where our fellowship resides. When I attended a Christian church and was learning about Jesus for the first time, I tried to accept the concept of the Trinity and that Jesus was literally God, even though I had no clue what it meant. I tried asking a Pastor I respected what the answer was, but rather than telling me that he didn’t know either, he just sidestepped the question, and I chose not to press him on it.

ShekhinahPeople can point out the passages in the New Testament they believe says that Jesus was worshipped as God, but even among the most learned New Testament scholars, most of whom are devout Christians, the matter is highly debatable.

So where does Jewish mysticism fit in?

In other words: If the Shechinah is manifest in the “garment”, i.e., if the garment is enveloped by its source, then it follows that it should be nullified out of existence, just as the sun’s rays cease to exist within the body of the sun. In effect, this would make the “garment” cease serving as a “garment” to conceal the Shechinah.

-Today’s Tanya Lesson
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 52

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. –John 1:1-5, 14-18 (ESV)

No, that’s not an answer, but it is a clue. No, I can hardly say that we can directly apply commentary on passages from the Tanya directly to the Gospel of John (although John’s Gospel is the most “mystical”), but again, this seems to be a clue that makes a sort of sense to me.

However, I want to talk about education, rather than trying to solve astounding mysteries. As I understand my situation, I have a few options.

First, I could go to church and stick to canned teachings about what Christians believe, including accepting the doctrine of the Trinity based on the word of various Pastors and Bible teachers and stop asking questions. That’s the “safest” route, not just for my fellowship with other Christians, but for the sake of the well being of other Christians. If I stop asking uncomfortable questions which they don’t want to answer (because they believe they have all the answers they need), then I won’t drive them crazy with frustration because I won’t “fall into line.” or go with the “herd.”

Second, I could swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and follow every craziness that happens to manifest on the web. Frankly (and you should pardon what I’m about to say), that makes me vomit in my mouth just a little bit. Total, illogical insanity being tossed out into cyberspace for no other purpose than to express someone’s delusions or to create a cult following makes me just as nuts as the pre-programmed and utterly unenlightening teachings I used to encounter in Sunday school.

Third. I can continue to find what I believe are reasonable and reliable investigations into the Word of God that may not always be totally orthodox, but that have the promise of actually being interesting, challenging, and possibly even true. This one is full of trap doors for a lot of reasons, such as my not being a Bible scholar with lots of letters after my name. Entering into any sort of study, even a casual one, of any form of mysticism can also be hazardous, because of the constant need to distinguish between theory and interpretation. We interpret the Bible, we don’t really know it to be totally literal and factual, especially books like John and Revelation, which have highly mystical components. But at what point does interpretation become wishful thinking or even fantasy? At what point do we allow tradition and theology and doctrine to determine what the Bible says and then call it “fact?”

That line is very difficult to see amid the shifting sands of human understanding and desire to have our internal wishes or the wishes of our fellowship fulfilled.

I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. I absolutely know that I don’t know it all, or don’t know anywhere near what I’d like to know. I’m pretty sure the church and the synagogue don’t have all the answers either, not to mention legitimate texts of Jewish mysticism, no matter how compelling they may be.

But like most religious people, I have to choose a context in which to operate, otherwise my faith in chaotic and without structure. So I choose a hybrid of Christianity and Judaism, with a bit of Chassidic and Kabbalistic mysticism thrown in for spice. This probably won’t yield any additional facts beyond those I possess, but perhaps it will bring up some interesting questions. Faith isn’t always about having the right answers. Sometimes it’s about having the freedom to explore God.

If He had made the world a complete and utter mystery, we would have no path to know Him. And if all would fit together like a neat and tidy grandfather clock, we would not know that there is anything more to know. So He took His raw, unknowable Will and cloaked it in wisdom, and through that wisdom a world was formed. And in that world, we sentient beings are drawn to the wisdom—only to find ourselves engulfed within an unfathomable ocean of wonders.

Now it is within the mind’s grasp to know that no thought can grasp Him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Playing with Our Minds”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Somewhere between a limited, physical universe, and the boundless infinity we call God, we have a sandbox we’re allowed to play in and explore. The box is our limitations. The sand is what we don’t know and perhaps can’t know. Maybe playing in sand seems futile and childish to you and you’d rather just have the box because it’s ultimately knowable. But who knows what treasures God may have buried in the sand for us to find?

The Mystic Mirror Darkly: Messianic Divinity Part 3

I’ve said numerous times before in other blog posts, that I’m becoming convinced that we cannot understand the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and his early disciples without some ability to look at those teachings through a Jewish mystical lens. This goes beyond an understanding of Torah and Talmud (and possibly flies in the face of Judaism’s more “rational” understanding of God), but there are “mysteries” exposed in the Apostolic scriptures that suddenly become more comprehensible if we don’t examine them only with a literal and practical microscope. Seeing that Jewish mysticism can trace its origins to the first century B.C.E. (and perhaps before even that), makes it all the more likely that such a tradition found its way into the early Jewish writings describing the person and mission of the Jewish Messiah. How the divine could become a man and dwell among human beings requires belief beyond the physical realm and mysticism is the door that leads to the world where the mysterious can, in some fashion, become known.

-James Pyles
“Search for the Messiah in Pools of Unknowing”
Searching for the Light on the Path

Levertoff believed that the Gospels and Chasidic Judaism merged seamlessly, and he dedicated his scholarship to demonstrating that conviction. He is said to have best developed his ideas in his major life work, a manuscript on the subject of Christ and the Shechinah. Unfortunately, the book was never published and the manuscript has been lost; however, he presented a lecture titled “The Shekinah Motif in the New Testament Literature” to the Society of the Study of Religions that we may assume represented something of an abstract of the larger work. This short paper provides a glimpse into a compelling and radical attempt to reconcile Jewish mysticism and faith in an exalted, divine Messiah.

Commentary on Paul Philip Levertoff and
Love and the Messianic Age

This is the third part in my Messianic Divinity series. If you haven’t done so yet, please go back and read part 1, Exploring Messianic Divinity and part 2, The Living Word of God before continuing I here.

In yesterday’s “meditation”, I attempted to forge a connection between the Divine Presence inhabiting the Tabernacle in the desert, the Kabbalistic understanding that God somehow “clothes” His Divine will and wisdom as the actual Torah scroll and “the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” (John 1:14). I admit, to make all of that fit, compelling as the imagery is to me, takes more than a little sleight of hand. But then, none of us has a completely unclouded view of the meaning behind the Biblical text, and so we manage to use various “tools” to help us interface with the Word, sometimes including mysticism.

Although Christianity enjoys as much of a historical mystic heritage as Judaism, most modern-day Christians (as well as Gentile Messianics) tend to take a dim view of anything that strays outside of standard theological boundaries, and especially anything that might even vaguely suggest the occult. Kabbalah has more than its fair share of “magical” practices that appear to directly contradict certain portions of the Torah, but on the other hand, mysticism isn’t exactly a stranger in the Bible either.

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. –2 Corinthians 12:1-7

I must also point out two other major areas of the Bible that are written with strong mystical themes are Ezekiel 1:4-26, referencing the Prophet’s vision of the Third Temple, and John’s amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelations. It’s also been suggested by some New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John is strongly mystical in its descriptions of the Messiah compared with the other three Gospels. We can hardly dismiss mysticism as “unBiblical” when we find many examples produced directly in the text.

I’m saying all of this to propose that it may well be impossible to begin to grasp the nature and character of the Messiah and his teachings, unless we are prepared to consider Jewish mysticism as one of our interpreters. We already have seen in my quote of Levertoff above, that he saw a connection between Christ and the Divine Presence. Not only may the “explanation” for matters of the Divine nature of the Messiah be found along mystic paths, but it seems more than likely that there was some mystic tradition in the Judaism of the Apostles that allowed sections of the New Testament to be created with a distinctly mystic flair.

Author Gershom Scholem in his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism “connects the dots” of Jewish mystic tradition back before the birth of Christ.

The first phase in the development of Jewish mysticism before its crystallization in the mediaeval Kabbalah is also the longest. It’s literary remains are traceable over a period of almost a thousand years, from the first century B.C. to the tenth A.D., and some of its important records have survived…Between the physiognomy of early Jewish mysticism and that of mediaeval Kabbalism there is a difference which time has not effaced.

For those of you who disdain all things mystic and cannot possibly see how I, or anyone, can apply such material to a straightforward understanding of the Bible, I want to say that we might not always be able to understand what God is telling us if we confine ourselves within traditional Christian interpretations. I say that with the understanding that Judaism considers it impossible to interpret the Bible except through their traditions. I’m not one to toss tradition under a bus, so to speak, but it is possible that Christians miss something when we box ourselves in to our own little world of canned teachings and cardboard cutout explanations.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age.

I took the above-quote from my review of this First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) material on Levertoff, and if we accept them, and Levertoff, at their word, then we have a direct, eyewitness account of how the Gospels seem to have a distinctly Chasidic flavor. Perhaps we in Christianity are only educated in a single dimension of how to understand Jesus, including what he taught and more importantly, who he was and is as the Messiah and “the Word made flesh.”

Studying TorahI know what you’re thinking. How can we apply mystic traditions and interpretations to the New Testament when these traditions didn’t take form for a dozen centuries after the Apostles lived and died? Isn’t that a little bit like the Talmudic Sages performing Rabbinization on Abraham? Perhaps. I’m not saying the writers of the New Testament had an understanding of mysticism that mirrored Kabbalah or the Chasidic traditions, but I am saying that maybe we can use later mystic understandings as a sort of tool to deconstruct earlier writings. We may not get the absolute meaning, but we at least get to take a momentary peek under the Divine veil at the Messianic mysteries that lie underneath.

If little Feivel Levertoff could read a scrap of paper with bit of scripture from the Gospels on it and recognize something of himself and his Chasidic Jewish life in it, then perhaps there’s something there that can speak to us about who the Messiah is as well.

In 1887 a nine-year-old Chasidic Jew named Feivel Levertoff was trudging home from cheder (a Jewish day school) when a discarded scrap of paper caught his eye. It was printed with Hebrew text. Supposing it was a leaf from a prayer book or other sacred volume, Feivel picked it out of the snow.

He quickly read the piece of paper. It was a page from a book he had never read before. It told the story of a boy like himself – not much older either – whose parents found him in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, expounding the Scriptures and learning with the great sages of antiquity.

That boy found “in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, expounding the Scriptures and learning with the great sages of antiquity” was of course, twelve-year old Jesus.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. –Luke 2:46-47

The Gospels spoke to a late 19th century Chasidic Jewish boy in a voice we Christians could scarcely recognize. We need to adjust our hearing and our thinking to be able to listen to that voice as well. It is the voice of the Jewish Messiah and the voice of God speaking to His chosen people. It’s a voice that can speak to us as well, and whisper fascinating stories that we thought we knew, but don’t.

For my next and (probably) last part in this series, I’m going to step outside of my old “Searching” blog and discuss other sources of material on mysticism that just might shed more illumination on a Messiah who we view only “through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

In Tomorrow’s “Morning Meditation” comes the fourth and final part in this series: Waiting for Spring.