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Religion & Mysticism by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz installment two from The Strife & The Spirit

A story in the Talmud aptly illustrates this. Once, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa went to study Torah with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Yochanan's son fell ill and Rabbi Chanina asked for mercy for him, and he lived. Rabbi Yochanan said, "If Yochanan had beaten his head and held his legs all day long, he would not have been noticed." His wife then asked him, "And is Chanina greater than you?" To this he replied, "No, except that he is like a slave before the King and I am like a prince before the King." (Berachot 34b). From this it can be seen that in the encounter between the two types - Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great sage, the superior personality, and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, gifted with the supernatural faculty for healing and for other extraordinary things - Rabbi Yochanan is by no means able to do what Rabbi Chanina can do so easily. This does not mean that Rabbi Chanina is greater than Rabbi Yochana; he is merely gifted with a certain talent or capacity to make contact ith G-d, which makes it possible for him to perform these miracles. It does not make him "a prince before the King;" he remains "a slave before the King" (which may even be the nature of his extraordinary power). In other words, there is an evaluation here of the essence of the mysterious power to exceed the limits of nature. Admitting that it truly is a marvelous power, it is not considered one that necessarily makes the bearer of it superior to ordinary mortals.

As is apparent, the relationship of Jewish tradition to mystical powers (If we can call this assortment of supernatural forces that) is varied. It is respectful, but so reserved in its admiration as to hint at a certain scorn. This is quite in contrast to the revelation to prophecy. Indeed, a sharp and fundamental difference is evident between the honor and esteem shown the prophet, and the reserved and distant respect for the person with mystical powers. For a proper understanding, therefore, it is important to note the main differences between these two phenomena, which seem, nonetheless to be so similar. Outwardly, in fact, and even in terms of the visible effect, there may be little to distinguish the prophet from the magician or the possessor of supernatural powers. Both of them do things extraordinary, that exceed the limits of the natural. The difference becomes apparent only when one penetrates to the source: Where does the marvelous power come from? This is the profoundly basic difference.

Prophecy is an abundance that comes to man from without, from a higher source. This supernatural power is not necessarily a quality of his own being (Although it may be), but he is essentially dependent on something external and objective, which is the source of the power. On the other hand, the possessor of supernatural powers who is not a propehit, is himself the source of this power, which is subjective and given to his free will. From this point of view, and from every other opint of view, this capacity or talent may be likened to any other human talent - like painting or composing. The capacity to rise above the limitation of nature is given to people with a special gift for it; this gift, however, can be found in almost every type of person, irrespective of any other quality or trait. In other words, prophecy is an expression of supernatural influence coming from some source anove and greater than the world, while other kinds of supernatural phenomena are expressions of human capacities for this sort of power, used within a personal framework of source and action.

In the literature of the Kabbalah and Chasidism, it is assumed that every human being has some capacity for making contact with a world above the concrete world, and that the way to the supernatural is available to everyone at a particular level. At the same time, there are exceptional individuals and exceptional revelatory situations in which this contact is much more intimate and meaningful. THe supernatural capacity itself is a part of the whole concept of madregot (steps or grades). The term madregot comprises the various forms of supernatural revelation, vision, clairvoyance, telepathy, miracle, healing, release from the physicel, and the like. The relation to all these medregot (though they may also be the basis for "miracles") is like that of the Talmud: an attitude of respect and deference, together with a certain suspicion and disdain. Thus, although madregot were considered valuable means, they were never felt to be the end in themselves. A person could be a miracle worker and still not be great as a person; the madregah and the person are not always on the same plane. Much has been written about situations in which a person receives madregot without an accompanying elevation of personality or being, so that the madregot may later destroy the soul of the person who receives them. And clearly, these distinctions have to be made. The madregot are as marvelous as any other spiritual gifts, capable of bringing much benefit and grace. But if they are not used correctly, they can become the very opposite.

- to be continued


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