“The work of creation should not be taught in the presence of two, or the work of the heavenly Chariot in the presence of one.” [Mishna Chagiga 2:1]. The terminology used by the sages to refer to the mystic parts of the Torah was explained in different ways in the study halls. The approach of the Rambam is well-known: The “work of creation” refers to physics or natural sciences, while the “work of the Chariot” refers to metaphysics or Divine wisdom. The source for these terms is in Greek philosophy, and because of that some people are very critical of the Rambam’s commentary (for example, the RAN in his sermons and Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai in his book, Avodat Hakodesh). They felt that the existence of the mystic secrets of Yisrael is an independent phenomenon, rooted in the words of the prophets, which is the essence of the Kabbalah.
Even though the Rambam is not part of the community of Kabbalah masters and his writings are strongly opposed to their approach (for example in volume 1 of Moreh Nevuchim, Chapters 61-62), it appears that his sensitive ear caught some inputs from the traditions of our nation that cannot be constrained into a mundane philosophical approach. This can be seen from what he wrote: “This is because it includes matters which are embedded in the hearts of the most perfect people. And when these matters are explained using language and parables they lose their flavor and are removed from their true meaning.” [Rambam’s commentary on the above Mishna, as translated by Rabbi Joseph Kapach]. The Rambam wrote this passage before he wrote his philosophical commentary, where he wrote the following: “Now listen to me about what has become clear to me based on my own study of the words of the sages. This is that they call the works of creation the natural sciences…” From this it is absolutely clear that the first commentary that appeared above came to him through traditional sources, while the second one is based on his own analysis.
Mystic secrets will always remain secret, and they can never be explained by words. Even so, the need to provide a response to spiritual challenges that come from the outside world makes it necessary now and then to present the mysticism in a way that corresponds to the external competition. The mystic approach can be summarized as having passed through five successive time periods:
(1) The ancient era, when the main spiritual opponent was pagan mythology. This was opposed by prophecy, using all its power. This was in essence the Kabbalah itself, as Rashi indicates: “Words of Kabbalah – the Prophets and the Writings. The master of all of these was our Teacher, Moses.” [Bava Kama 2b].
(2) The era after prophecy, where a yearning arose for the revelation whose time had passed, as expressed in the mysticism of the other nations. On the other hand, the greatest of the Tana’im, led by Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai, translated the mystic approach into a study of the mystic Chariot.
(3) In the Middle Ages, Greek philosophy reigned supreme, while at the same time the approach of Kabbalah in its familiar form appeared. This reached its peak with the teachings of the ARI.
(4) The other nations became involved in spiritual matters through such approaches as romanticism, psychology, and psychoanalysis. This was countered by the mystic approach as clothed in Chassidic spiritualism, founded by the Baal Shem Tov.
(5) When the collective consciousness rose up once again as characterized by nationalism on one hand and socialism on the other hand, the approach of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook appeared, as the final version of the spirit of prophecy.
Source: “THE ROOTS OF FAITH: Basic Tenets of Jewish Philosophy” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute). See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Emor 5777, issue 1672.