Author Archives: Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

About Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

Dr. Elliot R. Wolfsonn is Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Jewish Mystical Ideas and Concerns

The following article explores two aspects of Jewish mysticism. In the first half, the author discusses the relationship between philosophical ideas and mystical ideas. In the second half, he delineates the two fundamental concerns found in Jewish mystical literature: a claim to esoteric knowledge and the importance of certain intense religious experiences. Reprinted with permission from

“Jewish Mysticism: A Philosophical Overview,” in History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (1996).

Of the many contributions that Gershom Scholem’s prolific
research has made to the field of Judaica, one of the most significant is the
broadening of the parameters of the intellectual history of the Jews from late
antiquity to the modern period.

This expansion of intellectual horizons is perhaps nowhere
more apparent than in the study of medieval Jewish culture, the richest period
of mystical creativity in Jewish history. Together with the more traditionally
studied forms of philosophical expression, reflecting in particular the
Aristotelian and Neoplatonic legacies transmitted to the Jews through the
Arabic translations of Greek and Syriac works, Scholem introduced a canon of
texts that approached many of the same problems in metaphysics, epistemology,
psychology, and cosmology as did the works of classical philosophy.

Mysticism and Philosophy: Discrete Disciplines

Despite the fact that Scholem was keenly aware of the
textual, philological, and historical influence of philosophical authors on
Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages, he dichotomized the intellectual currents of
mysticism and philosophy in too simplistic a fashion.

In part this has to be seen as Scholem’s reaction to his
intellectual predecessors, the nineteenth‑century German scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums [“the
science of Judaism”], who viewed the medieval philosophical sources as the
apex of cultural creativity, whereas the mystical texts were derisively

Abraham Abulafia & Ecstatic Kabbalah

The following is excerpted and reprinted with permission from “Jewish Mysticism: A Philosophical Overview,” in
History of Jewish Philosophy
, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman, published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group (1996).

In the latter part of the thirteenth century, at the time when theosophic kabbalah [the primary strand of kabbalah, aimed at understanding and affecting the divine world] was flourishing, there emerged as well an alternative kabbalistic tradition with a different focus. The main exponent of this tradition was Abraham Abulafia. 

Experiential Mysticism

Whereas the theosophic kabbalists focused their attention on the hypostatic potencies [i.e. the underlying powers] that made up the divine realm, Abulafia turned his attention to cultivating a mystical system: that could assist one in achieving a state of unio mystica [i.e. union with God], which he identified as prophecy.

He thus called his system “prophetic kabbalah” (kabbalah nevu’it), though modern scholars have referred to it as ecstatic kabbalah in so far as it is aimed at producing a state of mystical ecstasy wherein the boundaries separating the self from God are overcome.

abulafiaProphetic kabbalah, according to Abulafia, embraces two parts, kabbalat ha‑sefirot and kabbalat ha‑shemot; the former is primary in time, but the latter is primary in importance. Abulafia is harshly critical of the theosophic kabbalists who interpret the sefirot as potencies that make up the divine. By contrast, according to him, the sefirot represent the separate intellects in the cosmological chain.

Contemplation of the sefirot results in the intellectual overflow that facilitates the attainment of prophetic consciousness, which is essentially characterized as comprehension of the divine name. The process of intellection thus enables the mystic to unite with the divine. In so far as this process facilitates the union of the self with its divine source, Abulafia on occasion describes the sefirotic entities as internalized psychological states. There is a perfect symmetry between the external cosmological axis and the internal psychical one.