The Jewish tradition makes numerous references
to an encounter with a Divine Light. A few of these sources are
Scriptural, a few Rabbinic, but most are mystical. Judaism shares
with other traditions instances in which one encounters a brilliant,
indescribable Light, often accompanied by feelings of great joy.
Exactly what this experience means is interpreted -- as we would
expect -- in a uniquely Jewish way.
Judaism derives its name from the Biblical "golden
age" of the faith in the state of Judah in the 10th century BC
-- hence the name "Judah-ism." Judaism was then and for the most
part remains today a religion of a specific people -- the Jews.
Jewish ancestry can be traced back as far as a
man named Abraham, who brought a tribe of Semitic nomads from
Mesopotamia to Canaan (roughly the same area as present day Israel)
sometime in the second millennium BC. By about the 13th century
BC, the Egyptian pharaoh conquered much of the region and put
the ancient Israelites into slavery. Later in the same century,
a man named Moses guided these people out of slavery, and back
to the general area that we now know as Israel. As tradition would
have it, Moses and the ancient Israelites were led by Yahweh,
their God. Yahweh, they came to believe, was the one and only
God, who had chosen the Jews to be His people. Consequently, Yahweh
entered into a covenant (binding agreement) with His people. Under
this agreement, the people were expected to perform rituals for
Yahweh and live up to certain ethical standards, and in turn God
would show them favour.
Jewish tradition tells us that the ancient Israelites
broke their covenant with God in a number of ways. As a result,
God allowed His people to be carried away into exile in Babylon,
in 586 BC. Yahweh's people were liberated from Babylon by Cyrus,
King of Persia, in 538 BC. Cyrus allowed them to set up a semi-autonomous
theocratic state in their homeland once again.
Even partial independence only lasted until the
mid 4th century BC, when Alexander the Great defeated Persia and
imposed Hellenistic (Greek) culture throughout all conquered lands.
This was met with resistance by the Jews. Through the leadership
of members of a Jewish family known as the Maccabees, the people
of the covenant with Yahweh established an independent state in
the region in the mid 2nd century BC.
The new Jewish state lasted until 37 BC, when the
area fell under Roman occupation. Several rebellions were launched
against the Romans, most notably one in 66 CE. The Roman army
under Titus responded by crushing the rebellion, sacking Jerusalem,
and destroying the temple of Yahweh. The period following this
great defeat is known as the Diaspora, when Jews left their homeland
and dispersed throughout the world.
Once again in exile, the Jews were persecuted just
about everywhere they went. The most infamous and grotesque of
these persecutions was the Nazi holocaust in the 20th century,
in which millions of Jews were executed in mass genocide. Still,
though, the people and the religion survived. In 1948, the nation
of Israel once again came into being, with one of the express
purposes being that the Jews "never again" allow such persecutions
against them to exist.
The holy scripture of the Jews is the Hebrew Bible,
or what Christians would call the "Old Testament." This is further
broken down into the Torah, or Law (included in the first five
books of the Bible), the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature.
The voluminous body of literature known as the Talmud gives interpretations
of the scriptures.
Today Judaism is broken into three major branches.
The Orthodox adhere to strict observance of Jewish laws and traditions
at all times. This includes dietary restrictions; keeping the
Sabbath (Saturday) as a day of rest, study, work and devotion;
and wearing a cap or hat at all times. Reform Judaism, whose roots
go back to the 19th century CE, seeks to return to an interpretation
of the Bible that does not rely on the teachings of the Talmud.
Further, Reformers extend Judaism to include Gentiles (non-Jews).
Later in the 19th century, Reform itself split into a form now
referred to as Conservative. This form of Judaism re-emphasized
many of the more traditional observations. However, Conservative
Jews also insist that Judaism must adapt to the times, so it is
not necessary to adhere strictly to matters such as traditional
The Jewish mystical tradition can be traced to prophetic
Biblical sources, particularly some of the Prophetic and Wisdom
literature. A much fuller expression of Jewish mysticism is found
in Philo, a Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, at the turn of
the first century CE. Philo incorporated a form of Platonism into
his reading of the Hebrew scriptures. The abundance of literature
on Jewish mysticism comes in the medieval period, however, with
the body of esoteric writings known as the Kabbalah. The primary
expression of these teachings is found in the five volume collection
known as the Zohar, most of which was likely written in 13th century
Spain. Kabbalistic teaching influenced later Jewish writers such
as the 16th century Spanish mystic Isaac Luria, and the 18th century
movement known as Hasidism. While maintaining similar practices
very similar to the Orthodox, Hasids seek inner illumination and
joy through Divine awareness. As we shall see, the Jewish mystical
tradition as a whole has plenty to say about the subject at hand.