From Ancient Times through Today
- ISBN: 9780802864031
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: March 2020
A rabbi was once asked what do Jews believe about hell. His reply was, “Which Jews and in what time period?” We might ask a similar question about Jewish mysticism, and Martin Sweeney’s Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today does a commendable job answering this question by detailing what different Jews during various time periods thought about Jewish mysticism. While books on Jewish mysticism are abundant, rarely does a person find one that attempts such a sweeping and multidisciplinary approach. Intended as an updated source to his former classroom texts: Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism and William E. Kaufman’s Journeys: An Introductory Guide to Jewish Mysticism, Sweeney exceeds both in scope and readability. Thus, he has provided us with a useful and easy-to-read textbook, but with the possible danger that it may be a bit too comprehensive for one volume.
Jewish Mysticism also serves as a nice companion to Sweeney’s larger body of work, which includes critical treatments of the Hebrew Bible and of the Prophetic literature, specifically. This volume begins with, shall we say, a wide-angle lens in chapter 1, “Visionary Experience in the Ancient Near East,” that surveys the historical, cultural, and religious predecessors to ancient Israelite mystical experiences in Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia. In many ways, this is what makes this book so valuable for students of Jewish mysticism: it doesn’t begin with visionary experiences in the Hebrew Bible like most other introductions. Like a good critical introduction to the Bible, it situates the historical and cultural milieu that influenced the emerging Israelite religion.
Chapter 2, “Visionary and Dream Experiences in the Pentateuch,” narrows the focus to selected passages in the Torah, such as Jacob’s visions at Beth El, Moses at the Burning Bush, Balaam’s oracles, and so on. Notably, while this is a book about mysticism, Sweeney treats these episodes as a Hebrew Bible scholar, explaining the pertinent linguistic and theological details usually found in a biblical commentary alongside his presentation of the elements of mysticism found therein. The same is true of chapters 3, “The Former Prophets and Psalms,” and 4, “The Latter Prophets.” Whereas a biblical commentary on the Pentateuch or the Prophets might identify the mystical passages—or, at least, elements of mysticism—found there, this tome gives a very thoroughgoing treatment of these mystical passages/elements while situating them in their place and time.
These first four chapters make a very satisfying introduction to the subject of Jewish Mysticism by identifying its ancient Near Eastern predecessors and its early Israelite manifestations. It’s very readable and up-to-date, and praiseworthy. Following these four chapters, the book takes a more recognizable form—as books on Jewish mysticism go—with the remaining six chapters. These include chapter 5, “Jewish Apocalyptic Literature”; chapter 6, “The Heikhalot Literature”; chapter 7, “From Heikhalot to Early Kabbalistic Literature”; chapter 8, “The Zohar”; chapter 9, “Lurianic Kabbalah”; and chapter 10, “Hasidism.” These six chapters are also up to date and readable, and together they constitute a fine survey of Jewish mysticism.
As textbook surveys go, however, even a book as well-written and researched as this one is, has its drawbacks. On the one hand, it is possibly too wide in its scope. One might wonder if this grand effort would be better received as a two-volume work, with the introduction and chapters 1-4 serving as volume 1, and chapters 5-10 as volume 2. I can’t imagine a one semester class that would attempt to cover this entire book except possibly a PhD seminar.
On the other hand, it could be argued that chapters 5-10 could be more thorough. For one thing, the discussion of the relation of philosophy to medieval Jewish mysticism is cursory. Perhaps that is as it must be in a survey, but the often-overlooked topic of philosophic mysticism warrants attention, however brief, in a survey of Jewish mysticism. The same could be said for Jewish mysticism’s cross-pollination with Islamic mysticism, especially Sufism. Even in his citation of sources for the medieval and modern periods, Sweeney doesn’t venture too far beyond the best known and most commonly quoted sources. In other words, these six chapters are mostly just a historical survey.
And since Sweeney teaches at Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist Seminary, he might have considered a section, chapter, or at least an appendix on the relation of Jewish mysticism to certain visionary passages in the New Testament, which is arguably a Jewish text, or at least it is within the cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism. For an example of a scholar who has done this, see Alan F. Segal‘s Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (Yale, 1992).
In sum, this survey textbook has many commendable qualities. Its strength lies, in my opinion, in chapters 1-4, which treat the ancient Near Eastern context of mystical experiences and the emergence of Israelite visionary experiences. And chapters 5-10 serve as a respectable and readable survey of what may be properly called “Jewish” mysticism, though I think it could be expanded.
Tom Edmondson is the senior pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Atlanta in Tucker, Georgia.Tom EdmondsonDate Of Review:May 16, 2022