Q. Why does Judaism seem so earthly and practical? Why does it not focus more on mysticism?
A. It is true that mainstream Judaism seems to emphasise day-to-day religious practice, but this is not for lack of a sense of spirituality. On the contrary: it is, as Max Kadushin put it, “normal mysticism”, in which every seemingly banal religious act is a precious moment of communion with God in the midst of our daily affairs.
However, many of our great religious leaders were both practical men and women of action and also people of deep feeling and poetic personality. For them religious practice and sometimes esoteric meditation and speculation went together.
A well-known example is Yosef Karo, editor of the Shulchan Aruch, whom a modern author calls “lawyer and mystic”. But long before this, there are mystic currents in the Tanach (the Book of Ezekiel is an example), and Biblical events were given a mystical significance, e.g. the secret knowledge imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the inner meaning of the four-letter Divine Name. Some of the best-known figures in the Mishnah, such as Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Rabbi Akiva, entered the pardes, the garden of mystical knowledge.
There is a mystical tradition that sought to delve into the secrets of nature, grappling, for instance, with the origins of the world, the nature of energy, and similar issues that later ages developed into physics, chemistry and other branches of science.
But in a wider sense, any truly spiritual person has always felt there were realms above and beyond the commonplace and that being earth-bound did not prevent us from being Heaven-bent, that there were things which were timely and things which were timeless. Prayer, meditation and other means of communing with the Creator, in particular, bring us into touch with that which really matters, and with the realm of perfection which is so much higher and more inspiring than the often fallible and frustrating world we inhabit on earth.
This is not for everyone; for them it may be enough to try to be “froom and good”, as a correspondent once wrote in the Jewish Chronicle. But even the so-called ordinary person still has moments when everything clears and, like the handmaid at the foot of Mount Sinai, as the sages say, they see even more than Ezekiel did in his visions.