Oral Esoteric Traditions
As we saw in the Talmud in Tractate Chagigah, there was great reservation toward teaching the subjects of mystical investigations. When mystical experiences actually were shared, they were done so face to face to one or two students at the most. Throughout the history of Jewish mysticism there was significant hesitation to commit esoteric teachings to writing, and the more the text pertained to actual experiences or techniques of meditation and ecstasy, the greater the hesitation. Most of these works, if they were ever written down, remained in manuscript form despite the advent of the printing press.
There's a legend that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob observed all of the 613 mitzvot of the Jewish tradition hundreds of years before Moses received the Torah. Kabbalists revered the patriarchs as spiritual giants whose intimacy with God was only surpassed by Moses.
Some of the greatest Jewish mystics barely wrote down any of their teachings, and what has been recorded of their thoughts was written by their disciples and students. Two striking examples of famed Jewish mystics who did not write down their own works are Isaac Luria (1534–1572) and the founder of Hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov (1700–1760). There's a well-known quotation by the Ba'al Shem Tov in response to what a Hasid (devotee) of his wrote: “I said one thing, you heard another, and you wrote a third.” Isaac Luria is quoted as saying that whenever he tries to write down his teachings, so many interrelated things come to him simultaneously that it is impossible for him to do them justice.
Practice over Study
The master/disciple relationship is very much an interpersonal experience. Even learning to read a text is much more than a matter of picking it up and assuming you can understand it. Though Hasidism is chronologically the last major phase in the history of Jewish mysticism, its insights about master/disciple relationships are relevant to any period. There's a well-known Hasidic anecdote in which the Hasid says he's going to the rebbe (the spiritual master) to watch him tie his shoes. In other words, the disciple is going to be with the rebbe because the rebbe is a living model of how to sanctify every part of one's life, even such a seemingly mundane act as tying one's shoes.
“A person whose wisdom is greater than his actions, to what is he comparable? To a tree whose branches are numerous and whose roots are few: a wind comes and uproots it and topples it” (Pirkei Avot 3:22).
Shimon the son of Gamliel is quoted in Pirkei Avot as saying, “it's not the study that is the main thing, but rather the practice” (1:17). As much as study of Torah was paramount in traditional Jewish life, the practice that emanates from it was still more important. The lifestyle of Kabbalah and earlier forms of Jewish mysticism included much study, but the study was not theoretical. It was meant to sanctify your actual life, not merely to stimulate you intellectually.
We know from Talmudic and other rabbinic sources that Rabbi Akiva, for example, was deeply involved in the Merkavah mysticism of his time, but despite all of the quotations from him, we don't really know what he taught his disciples in the hidden (Nistar) tradition. We possess books in which he is the main teacher, but they are written long after his death. We know that members of the desert community of the Essenes, in the days of the Second Temple, also engaged in esoteric studies, but we lack information about their explorations into spirituality and therefore don't know how it came to influence other Jewish mystics through the ages. We don't know how much of the mystical traditions, even those that we have remnants of in writing, were primarily communicated orally, master to disciple.
It seems that ideas that first appeared in ancient times in the land of Israel or in the diaspora in Babylonia (where Jews were taken after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.) later emerged in Europe, but how they made the journey is still a mystery. Even today certain Kabbalistic yeshivot (advanced Torah academies) in Jerusalem will not share their more esoteric teachings with the uninitiated. The same is true of the inner core of the Bratzlaver Hasidim. (We will discuss Bratzlaver Hasidism in detail in Chapter 16.)
“Someone whose actions are greater than his wisdom, to what is he comparable? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many and even if all the winds in the world came and blew upon it, there's no moving it from its place” (Pirkei Avot 3:22).
Hidden in Plain Sight
Even the manuscripts that survived to this day (certain passages of Hekhalot texts, for example) are difficult to understand without a mentor. Partially it could be because of errors in the manuscripts, but it also could be because the explanations were given orally and the texts were not meant to be understood completely independent of a mentor or master.
An early Hasidic text (Yosher Divrei Emet, “Straightforward Words of Truth”) encapsulates this sense of teaching the hidden (Nistar) tradition:
“I heard from the mouth of my holy teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, that what is called Nistar is something a person can't communicate to another … it's impossible to explain to him in speech how and what… . This is the case with the love and awe of the Creator, may His Name be blessed. It's impossible to explain to another how this love is in the heart, which is why it's called ‘hidden.’ But people refer to the wisdoms of Kabbalah as Nistar. How is that hidden? Look, anyone who wants to study, the book is in front of him. If a person doesn't understand, he's ignorant, and for that person Gemara and Tosephta [other rabbinic teachings from the period of the Mishnah] are also hidden. But the true secrets of the entire Zohar and the writings of the Ari [Isaac Luria], of blessed memory, are that they're founded upon union with the Creator. [They are] for someone who merits union and gazing upon the sublime Merkavah like the Ari for whom the celestial paths were illuminated and he traversed them continually in his mind's eye like the four who entered Pardes.”