ABOUT THE KABBALIST ABRAHAM ABULAFIA
One of the key personalities in the development of Jewish mysticism, sometimes referred to as the father of ecstatic Kabbalah, was Abraham Abulafia, born in Saragossa, Spain in the thirteenth century. The year of his birth was 1240 C.E., a symbolic year in kabbalistic cosmology, as we will see.
The combined twelfth and thirteen centuries was arguably the most prolific period in the publication of kabbalistic teachings. Prior to this time, the Kabbalah was highly secretive and there were stringent rules about who could learn these mysteries. For well over a thousand years, Kabbalah had been almost entirely an oral tradition except for a handful of early manuscripts, including the Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation), a short, extremely esoteric writing that was composed completely in a code that even today is difficult to decipher.
Ironically, kabbalistic ideas first began to be expressed more openly in the twelfth century as a reaction to the highly rational teachings of the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimomides (1135-1204). Maimomides, known more familiarly as Rambam (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon), had extraordinary influence in his time as a prolific writer and as one of the primary judges to whom communities turned for opinions regarding Jewish law. He was fully versed in Aristotelian logic and Greek philosophy. Having an extraordinary intellect, he tended to rationalize many of the mystical aspects of Judaism. In so doing, he became controversial for traditionalists. To this day, some Orthodox Jewish practitioners view him with considerable skepticism.
Those who reacted to Rambam’s rationalism placed great emphasis on the mystical aspects of the tradition: the nature of God, the creation story, the existence of angelic and demonic forces, the secret reasons for the Jewish laws, these and many other subjects were addressed. In the thirteenth century, this mystical movement gained considerable momentum, which led to the compilation of the most influential kabbalistic work: The Zohar.
The actual dates of composition of the Zohar are not clearly known, but major parts of the manuscript were circulated in the latter part of the thirteenth century. The individual considered its most likely author, Moshe de Leon, was born some time close to the year 1240 C.E., and thus was almost the same age as Abraham Abulafia.
This year, 1240 C.E., is quite meaningful for Jewish mystics. It happens to coincide with the Hebrew calendar year 5000, which represents the biblical measurement from the time of the first, primordial human: Adam Kadmon. While fundamentalist Jewish practitioners believe that Adam and Eve were literally in the Garden of Eden 5,000 years ago, the mystical perspective (the Kabbalah) is that there was a dramatic shift in consciousness 5,000 years ago that opened up a new level of awareness for human beings—an awareness that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Indeed, the full recognition of this awareness—being aware of awareness—is one of the major plateaus of the ongoing process of enlightenment.
Kabbalists agree with modern science that the earth is billions of years old. However, while science tends to focus on scientific method in fields such as geology, anthropology, paleontology, and so forth to distinguish eras of history, Kabbalists and other mystics are more interested in “consciousness”—understanding the nature of the mind itself—as a measure to determine major changes in life on earth. In this sense, Kabbalah follows evolutionary principles.
According to Kabbalah, humans today represent only one plateau on an evolutionary ladder that leads toward levels of consciousness that will transcend our current level. This potential of higher awareness is an elementary belief of mystical Judaism; it is called the coming of messianic consciousness, or simply the messiah.
The Hebrew year 5000 represents entry into the 6th millennium in the Jewish reckoning of time. From a mystical perspective, each thousand years is like a day, and thus the sixth millennium is represented by the sixth day of creation in Genesis. We see in the Torah that the sixth day of Genesis is when human consciousness came into its fullness. The implicit direction of consciousness is to transcend this level to reach the 7th day, the Sabbath day, when messianic consciousness will appear.
So the Kabbalist sees the thousand years that begin in 1240 C.E. as the final millennium of transition that leads up to a new species in the universe, one with messianic consciousness. The coming 7th millennium will begin in the Hebrew calendar year 6000, by our reckoning, 2240 C.E., a little over two hundred years from now. According to the kabbalistic model, this is a time when the entire world will experience a paradigm shift and will relate to each other and to all of creation in an entirely new way.
Of course, the challenge before us is the ability to survive the next couple of hundred years. Our current level of consciousness may not necessarily be well suited for survival of the species. This is a major reason why the individual quest for more enlightened actions, each person’s impact on the universe of consciousness, is so important in our time.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Abraham Abulafia, who was a deeply learned Kabbalist, believed that his birth-time signified that he was to play a powerful, prophetic role in moving the world toward this messianic view. As a twenty year old, for example, he traveled to the land of Israel to seek out the River Sambatyon, which is a magical, impassable boundary that in Jewish mythology stranded the ten lost tribes of Israel somewhere outside of the Holy Land. This mysterious river represents a barrier that moves with enormous force during the six days of the week—nothing can cross it. However, on the seventh day (Shabbat, thus the name Sambatyon), it is quiet and peaceful. The problem is that it cannot be crossed on that day because in traditional Judaism, travel (except within strict boundaries) is not permitted on the Sabbath day.
Abulafia’s desire to search for this mythical river was clearly a pilgrimage. From the kabbalistic perspective, it was a journey to explore the metaphorical barriers that need to be encountered to break out of the limits of ordinary consciousness. Abulafia called these mystical barriers “knots” that had to be untied to liberate one’s awareness. In his own description of his primary goal, Abulafia said his intent was, ”to unseal the soul, to untie the knots which bind it.” This idea of untying knots is connected with unraveling the confusion of the world (the complexity of knottiness).
We can imagine a knot tied in a rope. It acts as a dam, blocking and complicating the smooth flow of one’s finger down the line of the rope. In Abulafia’s view, when the knots are untied, the natural flow can be reestablished, and we automatically enter the realm of original unity. This is his metaphor of finding and liberating the ten lost tribes, which represent multiplicity, to return to oneness.
Unfortunately, Abulafia never completed his search. When he arrived in Acre, a war was being fought at the time in the Middle East between the Mamelukes and the Tatars. This was a literal barrier he could not overcome. He was forced to leave quickly. We learn from this that the knots keeping us from full liberation take many forms.
This early journey in the exploration of mystical secrets is a harbinger of things to come in Abulafia’s life. In his early thirties, immersed in special contemplative techniques, he experienced intense prophetic visions, and began to refer to himself by the name of Raziel, which means “secrets of God.” These visions were overwhelming; he often describes being blinded and lost. Still, he pursued his practices and lived on an edge that was strange for most traditional Jewish practitioners; there was too much ecstacy!
Indeed, Abulafia was so unique in his practices, mainstream Judaism marginalized his work and he remained virtually unknown until the middle of the twentieth century. While a few scholars of the latter half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries discussed Abulafia in some of their books, it was not until Gershom Scholem’s work, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), that a new light was cast upon the significance of these eight-hundred year old teachings. Scholem devoted an entire chapter in his book to Abulafia’s “theory of ecstatic knowledge.” One of Scholem’s students, Moshe Idel, has contributed a major scholarly effort, publishing a number of books that focus on Abulafia’s life and his practices.
This “ecstatic” mystical approach was a phenomenon that strongly impacted on the Jewish world of the thirteenth century. A number of other individuals during that time describe undertaking certain ecstatic practices, including Maimomides’s son, Abraham, who himself was drawn to participating in mind-altering Sufi practices. Some scholars even associate ecstatic Kabbalah with Moshe de Leon, the probable author of The Zohar.
We can only imagine the enthusiasm and fervor shared by these students of mysticism as they engaged in contemplative practices. Many of their writings have been lost, but the works that survived—along with other documents from Jewish authors in this time period—are among the most influential teachings in the entire library of Jewish mystical thought.
Abraham Abulafia stands out from all the others in that he developed a specific system of contemplative practice. There are techniques designed to access one’s own inner guide, called in Hebrew, me’orer penimi, an “inner mover,” who “opens the closed doors.” This inner mover is our own, personal spiritual mentor, “who will guide us through the veils of confusion.” Our mentor can be a human teacher we have already met or about whom we have knowledge, or it can be an unusual teacher who will appear to us in some form we will recognize as our practice deepens.