Ain’t Skeered (of the mystical)

Years ago, when I lived in the southern part of the United States, there existed a trend for homegrown, folky southerners (read: rednecks) to place on the rear of their pick-up trucks bumper stickers like this one:

No Fear

No Fear”.

No one really knew what that meant, but it sure did add to your southern redneck machismo if you had a “No Fear” sticker on your pick-up truck bumper.

Then, as it became trendy to state your lack of fear via sticky labels on your automobile, a new bumper sticker started showing up on the rusted trucks of the south:

Ain't SkeeredAin’t Skeered”. That means, “I am not scared”, in case you don’t speak redneck.

As if to counter the foolhardy “No Fear” rednecks, this new intellectual breed of southerners simply weren’t scared. (…of whatever it was we were supposed to be scared about.)

This past week I was reading Derek Leman’s post on Love and the Messianic Age. The book is a reprint of an early 20th century work by a Jewish luminary and pioneer of the modern Messianic movement, Dr. Paul Phillip Levertoff. The book touches a scary topic: mysticism.

One now-deleted comment on Leman’s post was by a concerned Christian who said, paraphrasing,

“First Fruits of Zion is going off the deep end publishing this mystical Kabala work. Highly suspect. Mysticism and Kabala are from Satan; why is an organization like First Fruits even touching things like the Zohar, when it’s clearly from the occult?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a thing. Even among my own family there is a great suspicion and fear of the mystical, especially anything related to Kabala and the Zohar, a book containing mystical commentary on the Torah. And I’m not the only one, fine blog reader! The FFOZ guys recently related how, whenever they post a video or blog or article discussing some mystical topic, they receive a flurry of unsubscription letters.

This morning, Vine of David, the folks publishing Levertoff’s “Love and the Messianic Age”, posted a blog addressing the concerns of those fearing the mystical:

Our first publication, Love and the Messianic Age by Paul Philip Levertoff, has met with an overwhelmingly positive response in the Messianic Jewish and Christian world. However, there are some individuals who are very uncomfortable with this book and perhaps even refuse to read it. That is because Love and the Messianic Age is Levertoff's effort to compare concepts in the New Testament (specifically, the Gospel of John) with those of Chassidic thought, including mysticism. Levertoff was a Jewish believer who was raised in a prestigious Chassidic family and well educated in Chassidic Judaism.

Some Christians are wary of anything labeled "mystical." Mysticism specifically provokes concern in some Christians because they equate it very directly with occultism, in the sense of paganism or Satanism. However, just because something is mystical does not at all mean that it is associated with paganism or Satanism.

I suspect part of the problem is that many in the Messianic movement are Brimstoners, Demon Under Every Stones, and Napeoleons. These attributes contribute to an overreaching paranoia and unfounded rebuke of otherwise good or neutral works.

Thus, fine blog readers, I am here to say, I have No Fear of the mystical. I approach with caution until I have a better ground on which to plant my view, but until that time, I Ain’t Skeered. Are you?


  1. I have not read the Levertoff book (it is in the public domain, so anyone can get a free copy), but I would make a few poignant observations about the overarching issues:

    1. We need not confuse "mystical" with "mysterious." There are certainly mysteries in the Bible, but do these really classify as being mystical? Likewise, are theophanies of God's Throne (like seen in Ezekiel), really mystical experiences, or just theophanies that go beyond normal human comprehension?

    2. We need to be careful when importing ideas like those seen in the Zohar, written in the Middle Ages, as though its ideas represent those of the First Century Jewish community. Considering a wide array of today's NT scholars is in order, because while I see plenty of them refer to the Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud, and Midrash Rabbah--I've never seen in the Zohar referred to. I think this is an important clue as to the type of literature we need to be consulting.

    3. There is a lot of the Bible that the Messianic movement just doesn't address. In fact, other than the Pentateuch, most of the Tanach goes unaddressed. And per this subject matter, letters like Colossians and what they might have to say about mysticism--why would they be addressed? Should we not be refining our understanding of the canonical Biblical books? This alone should be enough to occupy a person with for the rest of his or her life.

  2. I think it's why the Vine of David folks have explicitly defined "mystical"; the name implies different things to different people.

    Merriam-Webster defines the term "mystical" as "having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence" and "involving or having the nature of an individual's direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality."

    They give some examples of mystical things in the New Testament, such as 2 Corinthians 12, Revelation, and several passages in John.

    You are right that we need to use care with mystical texts like the Zohar. The Vine of David folks are engaging with Jewish mystical texts to get a better view of the early Messianic pioneers and their beliefs. This requires engagement with extra-Biblical Jewish texts, but this doesn't mean we must endorse every idea contained within.

  3. I think it is safe to say that the very early Hebrew Christian/Messianic Jewish pioneers came from a diverse array of Jewish backgrounds. This is no different than what we see the background of the different Protestant Reformers (just contrast Luther and Calvin). Likewise, many of us today come from a diverse array of backgrounds, and it affects not only our view of the Messianic movement, but our vision of what we think it needs to become.

  4. No one really knew what that meant, but it sure did add to your southern redneck machismo if you had a “No Fear” sticker on your pick-up truck bumper.

    It's not a Southern thang, "No Fear" is a brand of motocross clothing and gear that began in California.

    why is an organization like First Fruits even touching things like the Zohar

    I thought it was "Don't mess with the Zohan. :)

    The only thing I know about Kabala is...Madonna. The fact that she's into it makes me want to run the other way.

    Other than that I am not sure what Christian or MJ mysticism is. I literally believe that Christ lives in me...I believe that God speaks to me (no I don't hear voices)...does that make me a mystic?


  5. One individual states,

    "Even if you (FFOZ) now turn your back on this stuff and say you made a mistake, I am left asking where are you people in the eyes of God? Where is your holiness as you have chosen to follow mysticism as opposed to the leading of the Holy Spirit Himself."

    One thing that the readers of Love and the Messianic Age realize early on is that this is a comparative work of Chassidus and the book of John. The author (Levertoff) does not have an agenda other than to make the reader realize the beauty and depth of the Gospel and Christian faith.

    John, your welcome to search the net for a free PDF of the original work. However, VOD did pay for the rights to this work and is paying all of the Levertoff descendants royalties on this work. It is not a lot of money but it is the respectful thing to do. So while there are free versions floating out there we please note we have gone to great lengths to re-publish this in an honorable manner.

    As to backgrounds and views. Levertoff gives us a unique view of the NT from a Chassidic angle. This is important for a study of the NT and our role within greater Judaism.

    Gary: Yes. You are a mystic. Also, Judaism as a collective whole is ashamed of what Madonna and others have done with and perverted the concept of Kabalah.


  6. Gary: In California, eh? Well, you southerners were what made it popular! ;-)

  7. Good post Judah! VOD's publishing of this work is a great stride for Yeshua followers. The faith is deeper than we know it and at some point for the whole movement the best aid to helping us understand this faith will be yeshiva educated folks like R.Levertoff (another Paul). And if it doesn't ring true for some of us out there yet ill tell you this, when we start getting familiar with Chasidic ideas/text/lifestyle we will most definitely will come to the conclusion that Chasidus brings amazing amount of clarity to the Apostles ideas/text/lifestyles than anything out there. Ill even put my loot on the table and say the Apostles and early followers were the first Chasidic dynasty, they talked about this stuff 1600 years before it sprouted again in Europe, but we would never know this now days without the help of the works of the European Chasidic dynasties, history shows we have had and are still having a mound of trouble understanding Paul, but these guys get him more than we ever could. Much thanks to them all and to our own Torah luminaries like R.levertoff and others, and a big Yasher koach to VOD for re-publishing these works!

  8. Roman, thanks for the comment. I'm honored you posted here; I'm a big fan of your music.

  9. To add some balance to the topic of mysticism, you all might want to check out J.K.'s bible study podcast:

    June 17, 2009 Effect of Mysticism and Gnosticism on the Messianic Movement: Part 1

    and today's study, June 24, 2009:

    Effect of Mysticism and Gnosticism on the Messianic Movement: Part 2.

  10. John, after having finished listening to your latest bible study, I see you stifled yourself here in the comments. You believe the Judaizers spoken of in Galatians were Jewish mystics who didn't actually follow the Torah, eh?

    I thought one statement you made was rather, uh, strong:

    If the Judaizers [spoken of in Galatians] were indeed Jewish mystics, then the days and months and seasons and years mentioned in Galatians 4 that the Galatians were returning to, would have been related to astrology and the occult. It would make perfect sense for Paul to say those who were forcing the Galatians to be circumcised did not even keep the Torah, because what Jewish mysticism stands for is directly opposed to, and in violation of, the Torah itself.

    Whew! Well, that is an interesting theory, at least.

    Of course, we're not talking about the Zohar and Kabalah, as those things didn't exist then, at least in their modern form.

    If that theory is correct, if the Judaizers of Galatians were, in fact, Jewish mystics, then perhaps we have reason to be cautious.

    Interesting stuff.

  11. Judah, the Judaizers/Influencers in Galatia are said to be following things opposed by the Torah (Galatians 6:13), which for the Galatians would have meant a return to "the elemental things of the world" (Galatians 4:3). Either these elemental things are actually God's statutes and ordinances--and Paul is equating them with paganism--or there is something else to be considered.

    The Mysticism-Gnosticism study is a bridge study not only because it is related to the material in Colossians, but also because I have not yet finished my notes on the rest of Colossians 2 (computer crisis as you know). I'm not going to let any of you go for three weeks without anything, after all! If you want to know more about the identity of the Judaizers/Influencers issue, it is discussed more thoroughly in my Galatians study from 2007-2008.

    I certainly agree that Kabbalah was not present in the First Century. But, proto-Gnosticism and mysticism were (and not only in Judaism, but also in many Hellenistic mystery cults). As always, a Bible teacher has to take an ancient text of Scripture, interpret it for what it meant to its original audience, and then seek relevant applications for today.

    And no, I have never been a fan of the Jewish mystical tradition. I do not stand alone on this one, either, as it is not something widely considered by the more moderate and Centrist branches of Judaism. I believe that not only does it have questionable origins, but it also has unleashed some dangerous hermeneutics. (This will be addressed in Part 3 next week.)

  12. Fair enough.

    And boy, you sure have some rough words for the Besht and the chassids! You suggest Baal Shem Tov made his living as a dealer of amulets and healer and magician through the use of practical kabalah. Whew. That's quite the strong accusation and will undoubtedly cause some to cringe.

    I'll be listening to the next podcast with much interest.

    BTW, when I finish Levertoff's book, I'll be posting some thoughts here.

  13. Looking through my notes, that was a quotation from the Encylopedia Judaica article on "Magic." Go look it up and judge for yourself.

    I know that some Messianics might not like our ministry position on the Kabbalah being likened to a counterfeit Holy Spirit. At the same time, a lot of other Messianics will find this position to be very helpful should they be in conflict about it.

    If you want, I can mail you a complimentary booklet that includes this teaching in printed form, with my various references. Just e-mail me your address.

  14. Is this what you're referring to? Or is the Jewish Encyclopedia different than Encyclopedia Judaica?

    Interesting quote from that article:

    More abundant information is found in post-Biblical literature, especially in the Babylonian Talmud, where the great number of the passages alluding to magic furnishes incontrovertible evidence of its wide diffusion. It was, however, only the practise of witchcraft which was prohibited, for a knowledge of magic was indispensable to a member of the chief council or of the judiciary, and might be acquired even from the heathen. The most profound scholars were adepts in the black art, and the Law did not deny its power. The people, who cared little for the views of the learned, were devoted to witchcraft, though not so much as the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

    And again,

    This ingrained belief in magic infected even the scholars; for although they did not practise witchcraft for gain or for unlawful ends, they occasionally counteracted black magic by white. They were even able to create a calf when they needed food (ib. pp. 26 et seq.). Healing by means of white magic is not condemned except when the means employed are pagan or idolatrous. Many scholars consumed men with a glance, or reduced them to a heap of bones, but since this magic was regarded as a punishment for sins which had been committed, the passages of the Talmud which mention it take no exception to it.

    And toward the end of the article,

    At the close of the Middle Ages the Cabala influenced the Jewish and the Christian world alike. The "Nishmat Ḥayyim" of Manasseh ben Israel, chief rabbi in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, is filled with superstition and magic, and many Christian scholars were deluded. The evil deeply and widely infected the people, and is still active, especially among the Ḥasidim.

    This sounds like absolutely bat-poop crazy stuff. I mean, creating calf out of thin air, turning men into piles of bones via divination, golems...surely this is superstition and not real stuff? We're entering into X-Files territory! :-)

    The last time I heard of such a strong faith in magic was when dealing with the Scientologists a few years ago, quoting the founder of that "religion":

    I believed in Satanism. There was no other religion in the house! Scientology® and black magic. What a lot of people don't realize is that Scientology® is black magic that is just spread out over a long time period. To perform black magic generally takes a few hours or, at most, a few weeks. But in Scientology it's stretched out over a lifetime, and so you don't see it. Black magic is the inner core of Scientology® --- and it is probably the only part of Scientology® that really works."

  15. No, the online encylopedia you referred to is different from the Encyclopedia Judaica.

    The cheapest version of the EJ is available on CD-ROM for around $125, much less than the physical volumes which go for over $1000. But alas, it will not work on a machine that has over 512MB RAM.

  16. it will not work on a machine that has over 512MB RAM

    Wha...?! That's like every machine sold since 1998.

  17. This is why having physical books is so much better than software: they never need to be upgraded! (Even though, I do have some books with packing tape on the spine.)

  18. Heh. I think that's why you see a trend towards fewer desktop applications and more web applications -- they don't need to be updated.

    If they would only put Encyclopedia Judaica available online, they'd instantly have huge exposure, automatic archival through services like, they'd show up in Google search results and get more traffic, etc.

    But, I suppose, doing so would not allow them to charge the $1000 for physical copies. :-p But they actually might be able to make it up with web ads if they get enough traffic...

  19. Generally speaking, even while a lot of theological resources are expensive (and yes, I always shop around!), Jewish theological resources tend to be even more expensive. This is because the only people really interested in purchasing literature like the Talmud, Midrash, etc. are religious Jews and Christian academics. It's just the market.

    My OT prof at Asbury updated his disseration on the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, into a 215 page hardback. Sadly, only 300 copies were printed--and those go for over $60 a pop. Even more sadly, he'll be lucky if more than 300 copies are ever printed.

  20. I think an important qualifier to this whole discussion (the point may have been made, but I didn't see it), is that there are many different schools of Kabbalah/mysticism within Judaism. Finding parallels between certain strains of mystical thought and the NT (like the approach of Levertoff), does not require acceptance of others. The Zohar itself is a compilation of many hundreds of years worth of mystical doctrine. It is not an "all or nothing" systematic theology. Other aspects may find closer parallel to magic or gnosticism. Obviously, these are to be rejected.

    And, while Chassidus has largely been confined to Haredi and Chassidic groups in Orthodox Judaism, there has been a growing trend within Modern Orthodoxy of studying Kabbalah.

    However, I would agree with JKM that we must place our biggest emphasis upon studying the Scriptures we have in the Bible. And, I know FFOZ/VOD would agree with this as well. A true mystical understanding of God's Presence should inspire us to greater holiness in living and a deeper appreciation for God's Word