Abraham Abulafia & Ecstatic Kabbalah

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

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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.

How to Become a Prophet

Abulafia adopted the understanding of prophecy found in the philosophical writings of Moses Maimonides (1135‑1204), who in turn was influenced by Islamic thinkers such as al‑Farabi and ibn Sina, to the effect that the prophet receives an overflow from, and thereby attains a state of conjunction with, the active intellect, the last of the ten separate intellects in the cosmological chain.

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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.