Ideas & terminology – mysticism and Kabbalah

What does the word “mysticism” mean? What is a “mystical experience?”

What is “Kabbalah” – is that a synonym for mysticism?

Why do some people use the word “theosophy?”

Is there a difference between Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah?

What are the different types of Kabbalah, and which ones are Jewish?

Mystical experience

A purportedly non-sensory awareness giving knowledge of realities or states of affairs that couldn’t be known by way of ordinary sense-perception or introspection.

Rudolf Otto reserved the term “numinous” (from Latin “numen” meaning “divine” or “spirit”) for experiences allegedly of a reality perceived of as “wholly other” than the subject, producing a reaction of dread and fascination before an incomprehensible mystery (Otto 1957)

Mystics often describe their experience as ineffable, overpowering, timeless, transient. They often describe a sense of one-ness with the world.

“it seems obvious from a report of the experience from a wide variety of different peoples in different cultures and religions that the mystic experience involves a process in which consciousness becomes expanded beyond its normal limits and ordinary rational processes are temporarily dominated by non-rational, unconscious, and even super-conscious states.

While a mystical experience is authoritative for the person who has it, it obviously cannot convince others who have not, unless they are predisposed in that direction. No experience, however momentous, can satisfactorily settle theological questions for everyone. [Some people conclude that] the mystical experience demonstrates that all religions ultimately derive from the same Source. Annie Besant, in her Seven Great Religions, contended that within each of the world’s religions is a common wisdom tradition, a single spiritual truth…”

– R. W. B, Theosophy World


Mysticism is a general term for any religious or spiritual practices, traditions, or beliefs based on what mystics have reported as their own mystical experiences.

One does not have to have had a mystical experience themselves in order to study mysticism. One can read books by mystics. We find mysticism in most religions.

“Mysticism is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God. The believer seeks a direct experience, intuition, or insight into divine reality/the deity or dieties”

Mysticism, Wikibooks,


Kabbalah is the specifically Jewish tradition of mysticism. Jewish adherents of Kabbalah hold that it is the truest, best way to understand the nature of God and universe on the deepest level possible.

Some people find it helpful to consider three different forms of kabbalah –

* Meditative/Ecstatic Kabbalah is the practice of seeking mystical union with God. This is what mystics do.

* Theosophical/speculative Kabbalah is about seeking to understand and describe the divine realm. This is what mystics – but also any readers of kabbalah do. Any kind of learning about kabbalah could be called theosophical. That being said, in religious Jewish communities, we usually don’t use this word.

* Practical/Magical/Theurgic Kabbalah – This is the attempt to perform magic. An attempt to influence God and our world, on both higher mystical planes of existence and in our own physical world. Magic/theurgy is usually not considered acceptable in Judaism. It is usually considered primitive, superstitious, and not even real (i.e. most Jews hold that using Kabbalah to perform magic is impossible; the idea is false if not delusional.) That being said, in certain Jewish communities some people do consider this to be real, just very difficult to achieve, and dangerous to even attempt. No denomination of Judaism teaches its adherents to even try to do this.


On rare occasion we come across the word ‘theosophy. This word is only used in academic circles, or by non-Jews in new age religious movements. It has two very different meanings.

Theosophy – A new religious movement established in the United States during the late 19th century. It was founded by the Russian immigrant Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and American military officer Henry Steel Olcott. They taught that their system could give its believers special powers, e.g. levitation, clairvoyance, and telepathy. In this usage, Theosophy is a very new religion created by combining Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and various supposed occult texts that were circulating at this time.

Theosophy – An academic term, this is any mystical system which seeks to understand and describe the divine realm.

We almost never need to use the first definition. I’ve never even met a person who considers themselves to be a member of the religion of Theosophy.

But what about that second use of the word? Consider sports: An “athlete” is the one doing sports, e.g. Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. A “spectator” or “sports fan” reads about or watches the sport. The same is true for Kabbalah. The “mystic” is the person who has a mystical experience. The “student” or “reader” is anyone who reads about mystical experiences, like us.

So some scholars define “mysticism” to be the experience of mystics – while “theosophy” is any summary and explanation written by non-mystics, based on what mystics have told us.

When you think about it, we don’t need this new word. When we read Kabbalah we know who the mystics are – e.g. Cordovero, Luria, etc. They’re the mystics. We’re not. Yet another reason not to use “theosophy” is that it never had any real meaning before Helena Blavatsky publicized it through her new religion.


Professor Yosef Dan, in Toldot Torat Hasod HaIvrit, holds that we need to create a new word, esotericism, to more clearly explain what he sees as two different types of mystical experiences. In his definitions –

* mysticism refers to a religious experience that can’t be expressed in language.

* esotericism refers to mystical or religious ideas which can be expressed in language, but is kept a secret.

However few people use these words in that way. Most people just use the word mysticism.

Is there a difference between Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah?

In common usage, no. Jewish people usually use “Jewish mysticism” and “Kabbalah” interchangeably.

Just be aware that a few scholars define “Jewish mysticism” broadly, and consider “Kabbalah” a sub-set of Jewish mysticism. In this view:

* The term “Kabbalah” is restricted to works which focus on the ten sefirot, the basis of more “modern” Jewish mysticism. This would include mystical writings starting with Sefer haBahir (900s to 1100s CE), Zohar (1300 CE), the subsequent of works of Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, Hayyim Vital, etc.

* While the term “Jewish mysticism” includes all of that, along with earlier Jewish mystical writings that don’t include the ten sefirot, such as the Book of Ezekiel, some Midrash, the Hekhalot literature, Sefer Yetzirah.


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