Abraham Abulafia & Ecstatic Kabbalah

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

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This vision results from the conjunction of the human intellect with the divine, but, like all prophecy, following the view of Maimonides and his Islamic predecessors, there must be an imaginative component. The latter is described either as the form of the letters or that of an anthropos. Both of these are figurative depictions of the active intellect who, in Abulafia's writings, is also personified as Metatron [a supreme angel].

In some sense, as is pointed out most emphatically in the anonymous Sha'arei Tzedek, written by a disciple of Abulafia, the image is a reflection of the individual prophet or mystic, an externalization of his inner self to the point of identification of the human intellect and the active intellect [i.e. the intellect that actualizes human intellects], personified as an anthropomorphic shape or the letters of the name.

With respect to the possibility of envisioning the letters as an anthropos, there is again an interesting parallel between Abulafia and the German Pietists as discussed above. The corporealization of the letters of the name in the shape of an anthropos represents, in my estimation, one of the cornerstones of kabbalistic thought, which has its roots in ancient Jewish esotericism. While it lies beyond the confines of this summary to substantiate my claim in detail, let me underline the essential point that the letters assume an anthropomorphic form [i.e. a human form].

This renders problematic [Gershom] Scholem's general claim that Christian and kabbalistic doctrines of (visual) meditation should be distinguished on grounds that "in Christian mysticism a pictorial and concrete subject, such as the suffering of Christ and all that pertains to it, is given to the meditator, while in Kabbalah, the subject given is abstract and cannot be visualized, such as the Tetragrammaton and its combinations."

Scholem's point concerning the centrality of the Passion for mystical visions in Christianity is well taken, but his characterization of the subject of visual meditation in kabbalah as always being abstract needs to be qualified. The visualization of the letters of the name as an anthropos in German Pietism, in Abulafia, and in theosophic kabbalists indicates that in the Jewish mystical tradition as well the abstract can be rendered in a pictorial concrete image in the contemplative vision.

Abulafia's Influence

The ecstatic kabbalah had an important influence on the history of Jewish mysticism. In the last decade of the thirteenth century a circle of Abulafian kabbalah was established in northern Palestine. From this circle, which combined Abulafian mysticism with Sufic [Islamic mystical] ideas there derived several works, including Likkutei ha‑Ran (the teachings of Rabbi Nathan) and the anonymous Sha'arei Tzedek.

It is likely, moreover, that two important theosophic kabbalists, Isaac of Acre and Shem Tov ibn Gaon, were influenced by this circle, and thus assimilated ecstatic kabbalah within their respective theosophical traditions. In the sixteenth century Abulafian kabbalah began to have a pronounced effect on some of the major kabbalists in Safed, such as Solomon Alkabetz, Moses Cordovero, Elijah de Vidas, and Chayyim Vital, and at the same time on kabbalists in Jerusalem, such as Judah Albotini, and Joseph ibn Zaiah.

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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.