Tales of a Jewish Mystic

Tales of a Jewish Mystic

The Gospel of John has been my least favorite gospel.   The tradition behind John seems to squeeze the humanity out of Jesus, and the substitutionary atonement theology that grew out of the fourth gospel created a religion that focused on individualized salvation, rather than following the way of Jesus.   And then someone left for me a copy of John Shelby Spong’s most recent book the Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.  Spong reported in his book that he had avoided John’s Gospel for years for reasons similar to X FOURTH GOSPEL X THE WORD ESSENCE OF GODS CONSCIOUSNESS X HUMAN BEINGS INVITE TO ASPIRE X JUST THE FACTS X MYSTICISM SEEKS X MULLAH NASRUDDIN X HOLY RASCALS X BAAL SHEM TOV X CREATION ILLUMINED BY DIVINE LIGHT X LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN X RABBI RAMI SILENCE X NAME OF GOD IN HEBREW X FOLLOW OUR BREATHwhy I had disliked it.  But then Bishop Spong after wrestling with the text for several years came to a new appreciation of the Fourth Gospel.  In “Tales of Jewish Mystic” Spong argues that the Gospel of John is an attempt to understand the person of Jesus through the eyes of late First Century Jewish mysticism.   What this means is we cannot in anyway consider the Fourth Gospel to be biographical or historical, instead the whole narrative is a mystical metaphor.  One of the keys to understanding this extended metaphor is found in the prologue in the first chapter of John.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  For many years scholars took these opening sentences of the Fourth Gospel as evidence of the influence of Greek philosophy upon the composition of the Gospel of John.   And while some Greek influence may be involved, John Shelby Spong argues that “the word of God” was primarily an image from Jewish mysticism.   In the Beginning God spoke and creation occurred.  God brought the worlds into being through vocalized thought – Word.  For Jewish mystics the Word became the active creative principle of life – God’s own consciousness.  Jesus for the community that created the Fourth Gospel represented the essence of the Word in human form the one who shows the way to God consciousness — the one who embodies love.

John Shelby Spong tries to explain this mystical understanding of Jesus:

God was light, embracing all who could open their eyes to see.  God was life, the same life which was flowing through the universe, but which came to self-consciousness only in human beings – indeed only in those who were willing to risk entering or being born into a new dimension of humanity.  God, for John, was love, that life-giving power that embraces all those who are willing to accept the vulnerability that love always brings.  This means that for John, Jesus was not one who had come and then departed and who would someday come again.  Jesus was rather a God presence inviting all to enter who he was and is, to be born of the spirit – born, that is, to new dimensions of what it means to be human – and to participate thereby in the eternity of God.  There is thus no idea in this gospel of a second coming of the person of Jesus.  There is rather the new awakening to life, an awakening that makes it possible for those born into that spiritual dimension to be the bearers of the meaning of Christ in every generation.  The second coming was thus nothing more or less than the coming, or perhaps even the dawning realization, of the ever-permeating spirit.

God then in the Fourth Gospel is not an external being outside of time and space.  God is a presence, a consciousness that permeates all of reality including human beings.   Human beings are special, because at least in our known Universe, we are the only creatures who have attained a level of self-consciousness (or as Mark Twain was fond of saying, “we are the only animal that blushes or needs to.”)   Through Christ we humans have been invited to aspire to God consciousness by embracing the spirit of love, a love that has the courage to even give our lives away, as our most important purpose.   Indeed once we have pushed beyond our fear of death, our fear of the loss of self we pass through the portal into God consciousness and eternal life.

Now I recognize that for those of us who do not have a mystical nature, the Tales of a Jewish Mystic seem like non-sense.   Like Sergeant Joe Friday from “Dragnet” we want to say, “just the facts Ma’am just the facts.”  But if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge a reality beyond material reality, then mysticism is an unwholesome distraction.  For mysticism seeks the reality and meaning of what lies beyond the material facts.

Mysticism is difficult to explain, because it seeks the direct experience of the divine.  For those who do not want to acknowledge a reality beyond the material world, then mysticism is an unexplainable mystery.  But like the Gospel of John we can still tell stories.

There is a story credited to the 13th century sufi mystic known as Mulla Nasruddin:  Once, a man found Mulla Nasruddin searching for something on the ground outside his house.  On being asked, Nasruddin replied that he was looking for his key.  The man also joined in the search and in due course asked Mulla Nasruddin:  ”Where exactly did you drop it?”

Mulla answered: ”In my house.”
”Then why are you looking here?” the man asked.
”There is more light here than in my house,” replied Mulla


Characters like Mulla Nasruddin in our Christian tradition have been called “Holy Fools,” like St. Simeon in the Orthodox tradition.   More recently a group of mystics have called themselves “the Holy Rascals.”  One of these Holy Rascals, who has spoken in Huntsville, is Rabbi Rami Shapiro who teaches at Middle Tennessee State University.  Rabbi Rami has a whole book of stories gathered from the mystical Hasidic tradition.  Allow me to share with you a story about the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Rabbi from Poland, who is considered the founder of the Hasidic movement.   (Since Poland’s boundaries have changed so often, it was actually in the Ukraine.)

A delegation of sages from a distant town visited the Baal Shem Tov on a matter of great urgency.  He listened to their plight and then opened a copy of the Torah that was lying on the table before him.  He looked at the text of a moment, closed the book, and then proceeded to tell his visitors not only how to handle their situation but also exactly what would transpire over the new few months to resolve their problem.

Over those months the events transpired just as the Baal Shem had predicted.  The sages returned to the Baal Shem Tov to thank him for his insight and counsel.  One among them asked, “Tell me, Master, is it by opening the Torah and looking inside of it that you can perceive what is to happen and how best to respond to it?”

The Baal Shem Tov said:  “We are taught that God created the world with light, and that this light illumined the world from one end to the other.  Here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, were all present in the immediacy of that light.  And God saw that the world was not worthy of this light, that access to it by the unscrupulous would cause global disaster, so God hid the light for the righteous ones to come, those few who could use I properly.  Where did God hide this light?  In the Torah.  When a person peers into the Torah with only the pure desire to see the light of God for its own sake and with no selfish motive, then a path is lit up, and past and future, time and space, are open in the moment.  The righteous ones see the world as God sees the world: a creation of light.

Most mystics in the Jewish and Christian traditions are attracted to the image of light.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  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.”  So reads the Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

Most mystics are also attracted to silence.  As Rabbi Rami says, “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or say as well in another; and the more languages you learn, the more nuanced your understanding of life becomes.  Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual.  In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

Another contemporary Jewish mystic is Lawrence Kushner the author of the book we have been discussing in the Monday Bible Study and at the Sharing Table on Thursdays.  I think Rabbi Kushner speaks a truth that helps tie together the mystical experience of light and silence.   “The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are yod, hay, vav, and hay.  They are frequently mispronounced as “Yaveh.”  But in truth they are unutterable.  Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.

“This word is the sound of breathing.  The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.”

Whether we are of a mystical temperament or not, we can all breathe.  We can breathe and relax.  And if we can pay attention long enough and follow our breath, our breathing can lead us into God’s holy presence.


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