Abraham Abulafia & Ecstatic Kabbalah

One strand of medieval kabbalah focused on achieving a transformative mystical experience.

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For Abulafia, too, prophecy can be attained only when one is in a state of conjunction, a state that can come about only when the soul is freed from the bonds of the body. Thus, for example, he writes in his treatise 'Or ha‑Sekhel: "The connection of human existence with the divine existence during intellection--which is identical with the intellect in [its] existence--until he and He become one [entity]." The union between human and divine intellects is so complete that in this state the individual can utter with respect to God, "He is I and I am He."

One of the things that distinguishes Abulafia's mystical system from the more rationalist approach of Maimonides is that he introduced special techniques in order to bring about this state of conjunction or union (devekut).

The main techniques consisted of letter‑combination (in three stages: written, oral, and mental) and recitation of the divine names, which involved as well special breathing exercises and bodily postures. Abulafia referred to his "science of letter‑combination" (hokhmat ha‑tzeruf), also identified as the "path of names" (derekh ha‑shemot) as the true account of the chariot [the prototypical Jewish mystical experience derives from Ezekiel's vision of the merkavah, divine chariot or throne] (the term "merkavah" deriving from the root "rkb," which can mean in one of its conjugational forms, "leharkiv," "to combine").

[Scholar Moshe] Idel has attempted to locate the Abulafian technique of recitation of names as an ecstatic exercise in the history of Jewish mysticism, beginning with the Merkavah texts of late antiquity and culminating in some of the writings of the [12th and 13th century] German Pietists. Moreover, Idel has drawn our attention to some striking parallels between Abulafia's system of letter‑combination and Eleazar of Worms [c.1176-1238] whose works Abulafia himself on occasion mentions by name.

Envisioning the Divine

Although Abulafia gives preference to the auditory mode over the visual, accusing the theosophic kabbalists of focusing primarily on the latter, in his own system visionary experience plays a critical role.

For Abulafia, not only is the esoteric wisdom of the divine chariot brought about by knowledge of the various combinations and permutations of the names of God, but vision of the chariot itself consists of the very letters that are constitutive elements of the names. The ecstatic vision of the letters is not simply the means to achieve union with God; it is, to an extent, the end of the process.

The culminating stage in the via mystica [the mystical endeavor] is a vision of the letters of the divine names, especially the Tetragrammaton [the four letter name of God; the equivalent of YHVH], originating in the intellectual and imaginative powers. These letters are visualized simultaneously as an anthropos [a physical form]. Gazing upon the divine name is akin to beholding the divine form as constituted within one's imagination.

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Dr. Elliot R. Wolfson

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