Discuss the importance and reliability of exegesis and hermeneutics in the studies of mysticism.

The reason why this question is of great importance to the study of mysticism in the great traditions is because of the heavy bass which is carried through the song of mysticism: the experiential approach. The experiential approach is marked by most mystics to be the approach that all, including interpreters of texts, should seek out. Exegesis and hermeneutics[1] can be seen as a barrier to experiencing the ‘Real’, however without it mystics would be without wisdom. In order to discuss this question an epistemological and a less reductionist approach will be brought to light. In regards to exegesis and hermeneutics I will be looking at the importance of interpreting the texts of mystical experiences itself and then mystical texts; namely the Torah. Intellectually, the interpreters of mysticism are usually interpreters of the inclusive mystical experience, and the importance of this, or the exaggeration of the importance, will be discussed. The mystics themselves speak of leaving knowledge behind and giving it up in order to experience what has seeped through the holy texts. However, the reason this question will not be a one sided discussion is that in the Hebrew traditions, the esoteric interpretation of the holy texts embodies  mysticism and without exegesis, hermeneutics and the epistemological view of the texts the knowledge to ascertain the mystical would not be found. It could be argued that without the exegesis of such texts, the mystical experiences would not be interpreted as ‘mystical’.

Steven T. Katz, and his aptly named chapter ‘Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism’ is a good place to start building the foundation to this discussion. He was a writer that came after Rudolf Otto, German theologian and philosopher[2], in the midst of mysticism studies. Though we are speaking of exegesis (or just simply interpretation) interpretation in Katz’ work is meant as ‘the standard accounts of the subject which attempt to investigate what the mystic had to say about his experience.’[3] Katz’s take on the term ‘interpretation’ is applicable to this question as his work exemplifies and speaks about the exaggeration of the posteriori knowledge of the experiential approach. He has distaste for the sympathetic students of mysticism who turn towards an almost pantheistic interpretation to mystical experiences. Though Katz focuses on the interpretations of the experience itself, it can be applicable to the wider hermeneutical approach to holy texts too.[4] This is only possible if we are to look at the holy texts phenomenologically and view the texts how the mystics themselves see the texts – as a mystical experience waiting to be interpreted for deeper wisdom. This idea will be investigated further into the essay. For the task at hand, I will state the three forms of schema Katz grounds his hermeneutical argument.

Mystical experiences in every culture are the same and the reports of the experience all share the same underlying features (Katz refers to this as the least sophisticated form of schema).

All mystical experiences are the same however it is the reports of the experiences which are culturally specific. The mystic’s description of the experiences uses symbols of their cultural-religious (This is the more sophisticated form of schema).

Mystical experiences are not the same, however they can be divided into ‘types’, which go above cultural boundaries. This form of schema agrees that the description of the experiences is culturally bound, but the difference is that their experience is not culturally bound. [5]

Hermeneutical phenomenology is important, that point is not left unsaid in Katz’ work, however what Katz does is prioritises the levels of importance. The least sophisticated form presents to us the reductionist approach to the hermeneutics of mystical reports. It denies the right of the mystic, which is to express freely without comparison to another experience, and its lack of sophistication lulls over the specific details which the mystics would regard highly exclusive. However, Katz reminds us that the nature of the first form is that much of the early literature on the study of mysticism was generated by missionary and related activity which sought to find some common denominator among people of widely diverse religious backgrounds. It was the appeal for every religious experience to equal ‘x’. The task is to try and steer away essentialist reductionism i.e. reducing all reports of x to one claimed essence y. It may very well have been a daunting task but it is clear that as the intellectual studies of mysticism progressed hermeneutical phenomenology had to be reconstructed as the exegesis of the analysis of the mystical reports at the current time was falling into a lazy blur.[6] The analysis of the reports of the mystics in each form of the schema mentioned previously left no option but to fit a circle of variegated mystical experiences into an improper square hole of interpretive categories which lose sight of the fundamentally important differences between the data studied.[7] Katz, however, issues a foundational statement that only heightens the importance of hermeneutics. ‘There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences… That is to say, all experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us in extremely complex epistemological ways.’[8] Following this thought, it is perpendicular to what has been said before; mystical experiences cannot be cornered into one pen because focusing on just analysing the reports of a mystic after the experiential event does not do justice to it. What needs to be acknowledged is that the event and the articulation of the event is an amalgamation of the concepts the mystic brings to it. That is to say that the Jewish mystic does not have a mystical experience based on the Jewish tradition, but that the mystic has a Jewish experience i.e. a pre-formed anticipated Jewish experience based on the teachings and exegesis of Jewish texts. This idea may seem like an additional arm to the forms that were discussed before, but it is a very exclusive thought-provoking idea which needs to be taken seriously. This idea suggests that hermeneutical phenomenology in mysticism goes deeper than associating post-experiential accounts with predicative and pre-existing typologies. Rather it looks upon the pre-mystical consciousness which informs the mystical consciousness such that he experiences the mystic reality in terms of the deity, intellect or power known to that tradition.[9] It will be discussed further why De Certeau would disagree with this idea.

However, the idea from Katz brings to the surface that in order to analyse the mystical experience the student must analyse the conditions of the experience too.[10] If a student of mysticism were to do that, they would then find that they were looking at the exegesis of traditional texts, calculated by both the mystics and the orthodox. In the Jewish tradition the knowledge of Ein Sof, mitzvoth, Sefirah, the perfection of the Torah and of the spiritual soul is discovered through exegesis of the Torah. Through performing the mitzvot (commandments), including the ritual and ethical actions, it would symbolise perhaps a God who is ethically personal. That is to say the Jewish God is one who is affected by the exchange of good deeds and acts of proper performance. Keeping this idea in mind and linking it to Katz’s idea of analysing conditions, it can be said that the God known to the Jewish tradition does not have the requirements of a transcendental ego-obliterating mystical experience. The mystic does not lose their identity nor do they become united with God. Therefore, the majority of Jewish mystical experiences are not like that of the Sufi mystical experience; the final goal is not loss of the self or to unification with God. Instead, the Jewish mystical experience tends to be of symbols; the Divine Throne, God’s hidden Names or God’s hidden words in the Torah.[11] This can only ever be found out if one were to approach the reported experience hermeneutically, however one thing which strikes as jarring is that by looking at the conditions of a text are we then no longer looking at the experience exclusively as an experience but perhaps, a desperate plea to analyse the reports with nouns and verbs, regardless of whether they came from the tradition or not.

The forms of interpretation are important to consider as it only amplifies the need for intellectuals within mysticism studies to regard hermeneutical phenomenology highly and critically. However, if the forms discussed were to be looked at face value with no criticism and needed to be deduced regards to the study of mysticism, then I will say that they are important because they lead to a dissecting of the study of symbols, language and a progression towards understanding that each mystical experience is not a torch bearer for its respective tradition but it is a homage to the personal experience.

De Certeau (d. 1986) left behind a legacy dissimilar to the reductive approaches mentioned previously.  His work has been circulated throughout the English speaking world because of his emphasis on “intelligence without bounds”[12] and his thorough nit-picking at scientific methods on interpretation brings to light the “call to us in our most intimate recesses’[13] My earlier conclusion on the summary of Katz’ work concluded that hermeneutics is heavily important, especially in modern times, because it forces students to dissect symbols and language from one tradition – however, upon reading De Certeau this conclusion can be taken further. De Certeau theorises the practices carried out by intellectuals within the studies of mysticism, however, it is widely accepted that such theorising requires a lot of hard work to conceptualise. The reason for this is that students of mysticism are almost led to believe that thinking practically, or in terms of noun-objects is the successful way forward. The opposing thought process is that one should think dynamically, or in terms of verbs, acts or practices.[14] The pressure to think substantially within many Western cultures causes the “investigated object”, or in this specific case the mystical experience, to be viewed almost scientifically.  The pressure results in making the mystical experience an intelligible one in experimental terms. Not only does this result in the investigated object to become just that, an object, it also means there is a need for a subject. This subject-object type analysis produces a hermeneutical regression. Placing nouns onto experiences and even onto the conditions of such experiences (suggested by Katz) would result in it both becoming predictable and fixed entity. Therefore, the experience would be situated in a particular position within the broader field of experiences. The objectifying of mystical experiences (or practice) through hermeneutical mysticism takes us away from looking at mystical experiences as a mystical experience, the self as a mystical experience, theory as a mystical experience, or belief as a mystical experience. De Certeau’s conceptual grounding therefore portrays the central argument in practicing analysis of mysticism.[15]

The idea that hermeneutical phenomenology leads to scientific objectification is a current that runs through De Certeau’s work. It is articulated most simply here – “what had once been “mystical” became phenomenological – that part of the experience that science could grasp”.[16] The scientific analysis took what was ineffable, the unconscious, the transcendent into a science where experiences were defined on what it was not. There was a gradual shift from mystical experiences being “extraordinary” to being “abnormal”. His clear distaste for objectification meant that he turned towards the opposing team – the experiential. De Certeau does not regard the mystical as a merging of scientific doctrines but he regards it as a discursive and experiential practice. It is assumed from his work that when hermeneutics takes place, it is in fact reification taking place – turning the non-discursive into discursive (or the other way round). De Certeau’s opinion on the title at hand would be that hermeneutical analysis has the object (mystical experience) “within that grid of hypotheses and models which will ‘make them speak’… transforming the silence of things into answers, into language.”[17] It has sidestepped the ineffable dimension which De Certeau regards as more important. As a result the less sophisticated analyst, in De Certeau’s opinion, will only find what they are looking for from the analysis as long as every other path is gridlocked.[18] Referring back to Katz, if we are to look at a mystical experience as exclusively from a tradition; so a mystical experience experienced by a Chassidic Jew as a Jewish experience, it would mean that Katz and even the mystic may well know what exactly they are looking for in the experience because of the conditioned knowledge. Katz’s idea put up against De Certeau’s would mean that Katz would see an experience as a Jewish experience only because all the other hermeneutical approaches have been rubbed out and ‘systematically obstructed’ – thus arguably rendering it a reductive approach. Katz’s idea would be problematic for De Certaeu as he would suggest that Katz has created yet another model encourages mystical experiences to be wedged into words.

What De Certeau suggests analysts should do instead of applying hermeneutics or scientific method is understand that the only way to be fruitful in analytical endeavours is to resist all temptations to ground the radical into conceptual objects.  Only when the analyst understands this can they then go onto appreciate the mystical of a mystical experience. The mystical experience is generally unpredictable and irreproducible. The mystical reports are mainly portraying the shock of the experience because the completely unbelievable and the completely mundane. The mystic apparently is not sticking to symbols and signifiers but trying to empty of them. The mystic does not speak of what has been known to that tradition but they are focusing on the act of contemplation. In De Certeau’s opinion, the mystical experience is brought to life because the mystics are advised to dismantle any form of objectifying procedures, and to remove any representation that follows conceptualising objects. Therefore, terms such as “God” is limiting for the mystical experience for God is a concept imprisoned by a label. The mystic would not see the term as a light showing way for the experience but it would be a case of attainting meaning of the term from an intangible place in existence. The mystic and the analyst are thus at loggerheads because their purposes remain opposed.

We now have two opposing teams; “one discursive (in and by language), the other lacking in discourse.”[19] De Certeau does not try to analyse mystical experiences, or the ground of these mystical experiences to find out if they are ‘Real’, like the analytical approaches he criticises.[20] He does not suggest that the grounds of these mystical experiences, the mystical experience itself and the analysis of the experience should be pushed into one inquiry. Unlike Katz, De Certaeu believes that analysts confuse the individual mystical experience with inquiring into the grounds of that experience. In his opinion mystical texts cannot be analysed with “inside” knowledge. He also states that it becomes confused because the analyst may fail to separate mystical experience from its discourse. De Certeau suggests that in order to do a hermeneutical reading on a text justice one should keep the scriptorial experience in mind whilst also maintaining a healthy distance from it. His evidence for this is that the mystics of great traditions are weary of monistic discourse. The religious texts of the mystics claim individuality and unique discourse and this is what is preached to those who follow the tradition. There is a real hesitancy in accepting the adequacy of a shared discourse and the mystics apprehend the Real. Thomas Merton writes, “What a relief it was for me to discover not only that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God, but also that we should not allow ourselves to be satisfied with any such knowledge of Him”[21]

To reign in the work of De Certeau, with all due respect, I must take this information back to the task at hand: the importance of hermeneutics in mysticism. It is clear from what has been discussed that writers like De Certeau and analysts of discursive practices in Mysticism bring to light the problems scientific methods of analysing the ineffable and the outerworldly. It brings to light the problems hermeneutical phenomenology faces even in current times, and this must not be taken as a means to stagnate the analytical studies, but it is a means to separate mysticism, mystical experience and the tradition and then look at it with fine detail as its own exclusive thing. They act as a moderators in making sure that mystical experiences and mystics themselves are given every possible way to make sure their mysticism stays true to what it is.[22] With all that’s been written, it begs the question whether hermeneutical analysis of mystical texts will ever be done right – will we ever truly learn organic mystical experiences through hermeneutics? Or do we follow the mystic’s route and  detach ourselves from hermeneutical readings and just experience instead? Where does exegesis and hermeneutical readings practiced by mystics of the holy texts fit into this?

For this section of the essay I will be looking at the Hasidic exegesis of the Torah – mainly the language it has been written in. Between the years 1780 and 1815 the literary genre was homogenised with the exegetical homily and this was the main feature of the Jewish sermon. In fact, the characterisation of exegesis in sermons became such that the exegete would preach sermons that they themselves wrote. The disciples of the author would have disciples that would write down the sermons and this would sometimes cause different versions of the same sermon. The sermonic influence was so impressionable on authors that it can even be traced in the few non-homiletical classic works of Tania  and Keter Shem Tov, which are two collections of the Besht’s sayings.[23] The foundational works of these Rabbis mentioned and the many other homolitical works remained conservative and respectful of its sources. Though the preachers are expected to address new messages at every sermon they are still required to reference the Bible, the Talmud and other authoritative sources. The sermons were grounded on layers of different interpretations of the texts so as to seem that anything which is said in the sermon is within the sacred texts. Therefore, through exegesis, verses were being used and interpreted in order to delve into the inner depths of Jewish tradition rather than simply coming up with innovations. The authoritative texts are then seen to hold secrets which only through thorough knowledge of it can one utilise its wisdom. Thus exegesis and hermeneutical readings of authoritative texts was of upmost important to the Hassidic movement. [24]

In ‘Mystical Judaism’[25] there are two worlds: the higher and lower world. The higher world is hidden for whereas the lower world is an imprint of the higher world; it is as if through its connection the worlds seep through one another. The one thing both these worlds have in common is language. Language, in mystical Judaism, is a divine entity and therefore it is eternal and varied.[26] This would then mean to the exegete that Katz’s idea of using traditional concepts as signposts for mystical experiences would be of little use as the language is in itself varied. The hidden higher world can only be revealed to the lower world through language. What is being revealed is God’s creative power. Through knowledge of the infinite flow of letters the Jewish mystical tradition has put in place practices in order to comprehend God’s infinity. The divinity of letters are a tangible manifestation of the God’s speech, therefore the letters keep the universe going, and sustains the creative force that creates time and also transcends time. Therefore, mystical Judaism puts a lot of emphasis into studying the letters so that the mystic is able to push through the tangible in order to witness the hidden higher world in its purest form. The holy spirit touches man, the spirit of life and spirituality in general – but this happens through language. Through analysis of the aleph-beis the process of creation can be found. In the ancient mystical text Sefer Yestirah (Book of Creation) the process of creation is linked with the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has its own spiritual force and by combining them together new forces can be made.[27]

Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, writes:

It is known in Kabbalistic literature that the letters of the Aleph-Beis were created first of all. Thereafter, by use of the letters, The Holy One, blessed is He, created all the worlds. This is the hidden meaning of the first phrase in the Torah, “In the beginning God created (Aleph-beis)” – that is, God’s first act was to create the letters from aleph to beis (Genesis 1:1)[28]

Basing our knowledge on the sanctity of the Hebrew language, what is then the necessity to articulate them into prayers? If true mystical experiences are ineffable how then do we place the letters into the mystical template? Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai (better known as Chida), devotee to understanding the inner wisdom of the creation of God, answers these questions by reinforcing the power of combining letters. Articulating the letters livens the spiritual forces and the more sincere one is in contemplating these letters the more brighter the ‘spiritual light’ will shine within man.[29] With this information we can therefore exclaim according to Chida and many others scholars in Jewish mysticism that symbolism is of utmost importance. Without the symbolic interpretation of the letters there would be a gross misconduct in hermeneutical reading of mystical Judaism. Without analysing letters, would there be any connection at all between the Jewish and their Creator?

The Kabbalistic method[30] of Jewish mysticism is, and perhaps naively, known as a tradition full of symbolism. Kabbalah However, Moshe Idel, philosopher and scholar in the Kabbalah traditions, speaks of the importance of symbols in ecstatic Jewish mystical experiences. He admits that symbols are needed in order to help on grasp that which is tough to conceptualise. However, he claims that in the ecstatic Kabbalah, “no group of symbols can help achieve a better understanding of higher matters.” Certain with this statement he goes on to state that any form of written or oral phrase should be completely demolished in order to turn the limited and finite reasoning within our minds into infinite space to soak in the Divine. The example of R. Abraham Abulafia relates to the importance, or lack of, of symbols.[31] Abulafia is famously known for being the leading advocate of ‘Prophetic Kabbalah’.  Prophetic Kabbalah is similar to the wider ecstatic Kabbalah, however, it focuses more on attaining a form of consciousness so intense that the mystic can receive revelation from God.[32] He had combined Hebrew letters to create “divine names” and developed a system of meditation with them. Analysts of Abulafia’s work would regard it to be lacking in symbolism. Idel’s reasons for the lack of symbolism are; Abulafia was invested in experiencing a unitive or revelatory state, an anomaly in the Jewish mystical experience. The former, unitive, needed only the expression of symbolism but they were only used in an allegorical form. The latter, revelatory, was also expressed in an allegorical form and it could easily be deciphered using Aristotelian terminology. Secondly, Abulafia’s theology was strikingly different to the theology of theosophical Kabbalah. Due to the rejection of theosophy in general, this made him indifferent to theosophical symbolism which then later led to it becoming irrelevant to him. From the example of Abulafia, we see a formula being made which involves two axes of interpretation; one axis is named symbolism and its relation to nonunitive experiences and the second axis is named non-symbolic language and its relation to unitive experiences.[33]

The scientific objectification of the mystical reveals more about the developing sociocultural predominance of certain analytical practices than it does about mystical experience itself. Throughout this essay there is sufficient amount of evidence to conclude that hermeneutics is not always reliable for the study of mysticism and mysticism itself is hard to conceptualise. Hermeneutics can strip away the gold from the experience and show the mundane every day symbols that mystics wish to remove. Objectifying the mystical experience is part of the injustice caused by the untrained exegete and will only be appreciated once the individualistic analysis is predominant. A gradual change is happening in hermeneutics and it is becoming less of a rigid science and more of a fluid appreciation of the science. The importance of hermeneutical exegesis, however, is of great importance because what it does first and foremost is understand that the beauty in the mystical is that it cannot be comprehended. It offers a pedestal to mysticism after many have rendered it insane or fanatic. Without hermeneutics mystics would not find knowledge of the Being they wish to unite with. In this regards, it is of the mystics choice which way they attain unity and to what extent they wish to attain it; whether that be through symbolic or non-symbolic language. It is the choice of the analyst and the mystic to decipher what is important to them and to ask themselves what exactly do they wish to find from the mystical.


[1] The two terms are often used interchangeably

[2] Rudolph Otto is well known for The Idea of The Holy and his concept on ‘numinous’. It is very conclusive and one of the most serious early works into the study of mysticism. Those who came after him are influenced by his work and reference him in their own works.

[3] Katz, Steven T. (1978). Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. pg.23.

[4] Not in the same way as one mystical experience is interpreted from one tradition to another tradition.

[5] Katz, pp 23-25

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ibid, pg. 26

[9] ibid, pg 27

[10] Ibid, pg 32

[11] Ibid, pp. 32-34

[12] Roger Chartier in Ahearne, Jeremy (1995). Michel De Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other. U.S.A: Stanford University Press. pg 1.

[13] Edmond Jabés in Ahearne, Jeremy (1995). Michel De Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other. U.S.A: Stanford University Press. pg 1

[14] Brammer , Marsanne (1992). Thinking Practice: Michel De Certeau and The Theorization of Mysticism. JSTOR: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 27-37.

[15] Ibid

[16] De Certeau, Michel, (1992) “Mysticism.” Trans. Marsanne Brarnmer. Diacritics 22.2 pp. 1 1-25.

[17] Ibid, pg 22

[18] Brammer, pg 29

[19] De Certeau, Michel, (1980) “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life.” Trans. Marsanne Brarnmer. Social Text 1.3

[20] refer to first two chapters Brammer , Thinking Process

[21] De Certeau, 1992, pg 174-75

[22] Brammer, pg 32

[23] Rabi Shneur Zalman’s Tania. Rabi Schneur is an orthodox Rabbi and the founder of a branch of Hasidic Judaism called Chabad. Chabad philosophy is grounded on the Tania. It has a differing approach to analysisng the Torah as the Chabad took a more philosophical/intellectual route to exegesis.

Baal Shem Tov or also known as Besht, is one of the most well known Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

[24] Dan, Joseph (1983). The Teachings of Hasidism . U.S.A: Behrman House. pg. 3.

[25] Mystical Judaism is emphasised here because what it means for Judaism to be mystical has not been discussed in this essay due to the nature of the title. Mystical Judaism here is used as a term to mean the esoteric form of Judaism

[26] Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer (1990). Shemoneh Esrei: The Amidah/The Eighteen Blessings. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications. pg 27.

[27] Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, pg 27

[28] Ibid, page 28

[29] Shem HaGedolim, entry on R’Yitzchak of Acco in, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer (1990), pg 30

[30] Kabbalah is a method within mystical Judaism whereby those who follow it believe that it is a set of esoteric teachings. It is not a branch of Judaism, rather it is a methodological approach to mystical interpretation.

[31] Idel, Moshe (1998). Kabbalah: New Perspectives . U.S.A: Yale University, pg 200.

[32] Nash, John F.. (2008). Abraham Abulafia and the Ecstatic Kabbalah. Available: http://www.uriel.com/knowledge/articles-presentations/Nash%20articles/EQ040308–Abulafia.pdf. Last accessed 22nd April 2014.

[33] Idel, pg 203


Ahearne, Jeremy (1995). Michel De Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other. U.S.A: Stanford University Press

Brammer , Marsanne (1992). Thinking Practice: Michel De Certeau and The Theorization of Mysticism. JSTOR: The Johns Hopkins University Press

  • De Certeau, Michel, (1992) “Mysticism.” Trans. Marsanne Brammer. Diacritics 22.2
  • De Certeau, Michel, (1980) “On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life.” Trans. Marsanne Brammer. Social Text 1.3

Dan, Joseph (1983). The Teachings of Hasidism . U.S.A: Behrman House

Idel, Moshe (1998). Kabbalah: New Perspectives . U.S.A: Yale University

Katz, Steven T. (1978). Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nash, John F.. (2008). Abraham Abulafia and the Ecstatic Kabbalah. Available: http://www.uriel.com/knowledge/articles-presentations/Nash%20articles/EQ040308–Abulafia.pdf. Last accessed 22nd April 2014.

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer (1990). Shemoneh Esrei: The Amidah/The Eighteen Blessings. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications

Discuss the importance and reliability of exegesis and hermeneutics in the studies of mysticism.

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