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READING ASSIGNMENTS for Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom

We strongly encourage participants in the NGFP online course to prepare for each week's email discussion by downloading the lesson's book chapter and thinking about the questions the Professor has provided. Responses and further questions will be raised and discussed via email. A supplemental appendix and bibliography has been provided for those so inclined to deepen their background knowledge.If you wish to order the book at a 10% discount, contact the publisher directly. Indicate in your email that you are a participant in this course.

Preliminary Material
Chapter 1
The Jewish Mystical Library and the New Vision of Reality
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Guided Reading Questions
  1. Check in any dictionary the definition of mysticism and compare it to the definition of Jewish Mysticism suggested in the first chapter. How do the dictionary definitions reflect our cultural norms as discussed in the introduction to the first chapter?
  2. Is mysticism a universal category such as poetry or literature or is it culturally dependent phenomena that could be fully understood only within a certain culture such as tephilin (phylacteries), brit (circumcision) or kadish (mourning prayer)? Similarly, is the "hidden reality" the mystics seek to attain a reflection of a specific culture or an objective, universal reality?
  3. What are the unique components of Jewish mysticism and the historical and cultural realities that make it differ from other mystical traditions?
  4. Jewish Mysticism assumes that there is a hidden world and there is a way to reach it. What are the components of this 'other reality' in different historical periods and what are the ways to reach it?
  5. What are the sources of conflict between normative Judaism and its mystical traditions?
  6. Read a page of a Jewish mystical text such as Sefer Yetzira: Book of Creation (see Chapter 1 pp. 28-29 or links below) and try to explain what is unique about this text, what makes it mystical?

    19th Century English translation (Wescott)

    Short English translation (Kaplan)

    Modern English translation (Thompson and Marson)

    Hebrew text

Chapter 2
The Infinity of Meaning Embedded in the Sacred Text
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Guided Reading Questions
  1. Language is the common denominator between the creator and humankind: both create with it. Compare mystical language with current perceptions of language.
  2. How do the mystical tradition's six principles of the conception of the Torah's essence, serve to link Jewish mysticism to both the canonical text and its open, flexible reading?
  3. Why are the concepts of ayin and yesh so central to understanding Jewish mystical language?
  4. Read about Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto in the appendix and in more detail here. What role did text and language play in his mystical teachings?
  5. Mystical language strives to describe the invisible. How does it succeed in doing it?
  6. What is the relationship between mystical groups (throughout Jewish history) and mystical texts?
Chapter 3
The Mystical Figure: Life without Limits
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Guided Reading Questions
  1. Who can be defined as a mystic in Jewish culture? Look in the appendix of Jewish Mystics, choose one and try to follow his life and books looking at the appendix of mystical writings
  2. What are the sources of inspiration acknowledged in the Jewish mystical tradition?
  3. What distinguishes the mystics' experiences from hallucination or insanity? What do they share in common? How did the society around them react to these experiences?
  4. Why did the mystics identify so strongly with past figures, and which of these were particularly important archetypes?
  5. Why there are no women in Jewish mysticism, even though male-female dualism is an important aspect of Jewish mysticism?
  6. Given the antinomian nature of Jewish mystics, how did some of their radical concepts and practices manage to become part of traditional Judaism?
Chapter 4
Mystical Language and Magical Language: 'Had I been using tongues of men and angels'
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Guided Reading Questions

  1. What is the role language plays according to Jewish mystics and why are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet such an integral part of this role?
  2. Given the central role of the root S-F-R, can there be Jewish Mysticism which is not closely attached to the mystical library?
  3. What are the differences between mystical and magical language and what are their different roles?
  4. We have said that Jewish mysticism is an infinite expression of freedom. How does this relate to the mystics' view of language, in particular yihud and devekut?
  5. What is the connection between Jewish magical language and our conventional notions of magic?
  6. What is the difference between the two major expressions of Jewish Mysticism: Chariot Mysticism and Kabbalah?*
    *Further reading on the mysticism of the Chariot (written in the middle of the first millenium BCE until the middle of the first millenium CE) may be found in Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1941, chapter 2; in Scholem's book Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition, New York 1965; and in Rachel Elior, The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism, Oxford 2004.
    Further reading on Kabbalah (written in the second millennium CE), may be found in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, chapters 5-9 ; in Isaiah Tishby's The wisdom of the Zohar; and in books by Joseph Dan, Yehudah Liebes, Moshe Idel, Mark Verman and Elliot Wolfson.
    Detailed bibliograpical refrence are in the bibliography at the back of Jewish Mysticism
Historical and Literary Figures, Kabbalists, and Mystics Mentioned in Jewish Mystical Literature

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