The Risks of the Mystical Life

In the Jewish Talmud, there is a story that illustrates the dangers of engaging in questions of mysticism. ” Four entered the Pardes (“Paradise,” or the realms of mysticism): Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went insane, and Aher (the “other” who was no longer to be cited by name, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya) left the faith. Only Rabbi Akiva went up in peace and went down in peace.” That is the reason there are similar restrictions regarding who may study Jewish mystical texts like the Zohar, “The Book of Splendor.” For example, one should be at least 40 years old and married–in other words, sufficiently grounded in everyday life so as to minimize the risks of being overwhelmed by the mystical. It is a risk well worth considering. And yet…given that people have such inclinations, it may be that the Hindus are right that “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.” Would the Divine really prefer that we live utterly safe lives that are “like blades of grass, here today and gone tomorrow, it is as it they never were.” (Ps. 103) Similarly, I can’t help but wonder that, when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, God chastised them, yes–but secretly sighed that His children were, in fact, about to grow up and face all the challenges–and rewards–of maturity and, through spiritual maturity, the wonders and terrors underlying all of reality.

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