Abulafia's Disciple: 13th Century Kabbalistic Spiritual Autobiography
An anonymous disciple of Abulafia's wrote a book in 1295, apparently in Palestine, in which he set forth the basic
ideas of prophetic Kabbalism. Discussing three paths of expansion, i. e. of the progress of the spirit from
corporeality to an ever purer spiritual apprehension of objects, he has interpolated an autobiographical account.
In it he describes very accurately and without doubt reliably his own development, as well as his experiences with
Abulafia and the latters Kabbalah. He does not name Abulafia, but from the description he gives and the kindred
ideas he employs, there can be no doubt to whom he alludes. This book is called Shaare Tsedek, Gates of Justice.
Four manuscripts of it are extant. But only two of them contain this autobiographical account which obviously
in the other two has fallen a prey to that previously mentioned self-censorship of the Kabbalists who are adverse
to confessions of an all too intimate character concerning mystical experiences, and before whom the author deems
it necessary to apologize for his candor.
I believe it will be a good illustration for what I have been saying if I give the main parts of this account, which in my opinion, is of extraordinary psychological interest.
I, so and so, one of the lowliest, have probed my heart for ways of grace to bring about spiritual expansion and I have found three ways of progress to spiritualization: the vulgar, the philosophic, and the Kabbalistic way. The vulgar way is that which, so I learned, is practiced by Moslem ascetics. They employ all manner of devices to shut out from their souls all natural forms, every image of the familiar, natural world, Then, they say, when a spiritual form, an image from the spiritual world, enters their soul, it is isolated in their imagination and intensifies the imagination to such a degree that they can determine beforehand that which is to happen to us. Upon inquiry, I learned that they summon the Name, ALLAH, as it is in the language of Ishmael. I investigated further and I found that, when they pronounce these letters, they direct their thought completely away from every possible natural form, and the very letters ALLAH and their diverse powers work upon them. They are carried off into a trance without realizing how, since no Kabbalah has been transmitted to them. This removal of all natural forms and images from the soul is called with them Effacement.'
The second way is the philosophic, and the student will experience extreme difficulty in attempting to drive it from his soul because of the great sweetness it holds for the human reason and the completeness with which that reason knows to embrace it. It consists in this: That the student forms a notion of some science, mathematics for instance, and then proceeds by analogy to some natural science and then goes on to theology. He then continues further to circle round this centre of his, because of the sweetness of that which arises in him as he progresses in these studies. The sweetness of this so delights him that he finds neither gate nor door to enable him to pass beyond the notions which have already been established in him. At best, he can perhaps enjoy a [contemplative] spinning out of his thoughts and to this he will abandon himself, retiring into seclusion in order that no one may disturb his thought until it proceed a little beyond the purely philosophic and turn as the flaming sword which turned every way. The true cause of all this is also to be found in his contemplation of the letters through which, as intermediaries, he ascertains things. The subject which impressed itself on his human reason dominates him and his power seems to him great in all the sciences, seeing that this is natural to him [I. e. thus to ascertain them]. He contends that given things are revealed to him by way of prophecy, although he does not realize the true cause, but rather thinks that this occured to him merely because of the extension and enlargement of his human reason - . . But in reality it is the letters ascertained through thought and imagination, which influence him through their motion and which concentrate his thought on difficult themes, although he is not aware of this.
But if you put the difficult question to me: Why do we nowadays pronounce letters and move them and try to produce effects with them without however noticing any effect being produced by them? The answer lies, as I am going to demonstrate with the help of Shaddai, in the third way of inducing spiritualization. And I, the humble so and so, am going to tell you what I experienced in this matter.
Know, friends, that from the beginning I felt a desire to study Torah and learned a little of it and of the rest of Scripture. But I found no one to guide me in the study of the Talmud, not so much because of the lack of teachers, but rather because of my longing for my home, and my love for father and mother. At last, however, God gave me strength to search for the Torah, I went out and sought and found, and for several years I stayed abroad studying Talmud. But the flame of the Torah kept glowing within me,i though without my realizing it.
I returned to my native land and God brought me together with a Jewish philosopher with whom I studied some of Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed and this only added to my desire. I acquired a little of the science of logic and a little of natural science, and this was very sweet to me for, as you know, nature attracts nature. And God is my witness: If I had not previously acquired strength of faith by what little I had learned of the Torah and the Talmud, the impulse to keep many of the religious commands would have left me although the fire of pure intention was ablaze in my heart. But what this teacher communicated to me in the way of philosophy [on the meaning of the commandments], did not suffice me, until the Lord had me meet a godly man, a Kabbalist who taught me the general outlines of the Kabbalah. Nevertheless, in consequence of my smattering of natural science, the way of Kabbalah seemed all but impossible to me. It was then that my teacher said to me: My son, why do you deny something you have not tried? Much rather would it befit you to make a trial of it. If you then should find that it is nothing to you and if you are not perfect enough to find the fault with yourself then you may say that there is nothing to it. But, in order to make things sweet to me until my reason might accept them and I might penetrate into them with eagerness, he used always to make me grasp in a natural way everything in which he instructed me. I reasoned thus within myself: There can only be gain here and no loss. I shall see; if I find something in all of this, that is sheer gain; and if not, that which I have already had will still be mine. So I gave in and he taught me the method of the permutations and combinations of letters and the mysticism of numbers and the other Paths of the book Yetsirah. In each path he had me wander for two weeks until each form had been engraven in my heart, and so he led me on for four months or so and then ordered me to efface everything.
He used to tell me: My son, it is not the intention that you come to a stop with some finite or given form, even though it be of the highest order. Much rather is this the Path of the Names: The less understandable they are, the higher their order, until you arrive at the activity of a force which is no longer in your control, but rather your reason and your thought is in its control. I replied: If that be so [that all mental and sense images must be effaced], why then do you, Sir, compose books in which the methods of the natural scientists are coupled with instruction in the holy Names? He answered: For you and the likes of you among the followers of philosophy, to allure your human intellect through natural means, so that perhaps this attraction may cause you to arrive at the knowledge of the Holy Name. And he produced books for me made up of [combinations of] letters and names and mystic num bers [Gematrioth], of which nobody will ever be able to understand anything for they are not composed in a way meant to be understood. He said to me: This is the [undefiled] Path of the Names. And indeed, I would see none of it as my reason did not accept it. He said: It was very stupid of me to have shown them to you.
In short, after two months had elapsed and my thought had , disengaged itself [from everything material] and I had become aware of strange phenomena occurring within me, I set myself the, task at night of combining letters with one another and of ponders ing over them in philosophical meditation, a little different from, the way I do now, and so I continued for three nights without tell- ing him. The third night, after midnight, I nodded off a little, quill in hand and paper on my knees. Then I noticed that the candle was about to go out. I rose to put it right, as oftentimes happens to a person awake. Then I saw that the light continued. I was greatly astonished, as though, after close examination, I saw that it issued from myself. I said: I do not believe it. I walked to and fro all through the house and, behold, the light is with me; I lay on a couch and covered myself up, and behold, the light is with me all the while. I said: This is truly a great sign and a new phenomenon which I have perceived.
The next morning I communicated it to my teacher and I brought him the sheets which I had covered with combinations of letters. He congratulated me and said: My son, if you would devota yourself to combining holy Names, still greater things would hap-p pen to you. And now, my son, admit that you are unable to bear not combining. Give half to this and half to that, that is, do combi nations half of the night, and permutations half of the night. I practiced this method for about a week. During the second week thel power of meditation became so strong in me that I could not man age to write down the combinations of letters [which automatically spurted out of my pen], and if there had been ten people presen ] they would not have been able to write down so many combinations as came to me during the influx. When I came to the night in whichi this power was conferred on me, and midnight when this power especially expands and gains strength whereas the body weakens had passed, I set out to take up the Great Name of God, consisting of seventy-two names, permuting and combining it. But when I had done this for a little while, behold, the letters took on in my eyes the shape of great mountains, strong trembling seized me and I could summon no strength, my hair stood on end, and it was as if I were not in this world. At once I fell down, for I no longer felt the least strength in any of my limbs. And behold, something resembling speech emerged from my heart and came to my lips and f orced them to move. I thought perhaps this is, God forbid, a spirit of madness that has entered into me? But behold, I saw it uttering wisdom. I said: This is indeed the spirit of wisdom. After a little while my natural strength returned to me, I rose very much impaired and I still did not believe myself. Once more I took up the Name to do with it as before and, behold, it had exactly the same effect on me. Nevertheless I did not believe until I had tried it four or five times.
When I got up in the morning I told my teacher about it. He said to me: And who was it that allowed you to touch the Name? Did I not tell you to permute only letters? He spoke on: What happened to you, represents indeed a high stage among the prophetic degrees. He wanted to free me of it for he saw that my face had changed. But I said to him: In heavens name, can you per haps impart to me some power to enable me to bear this force emerging from my heart and to receive influx from it? For I wanted to draw this force towards me and receive influx from it, for it much resembles a spring filling a great basin with water. If a man [not being properly prepared for it] should open the dam, he would be drowned in its waters and his soul would desert him. He said to me: My son, it is the Lord who must bestow such power upon you for such power is not within mans control.
That Sabbath night also the power was active in me in the same, way. When, after two sleepless nights, I had passed day and night in meditating on the permutations or on the principles essential to a recognition of this true reality and to the annihilation of all extraneous thought then I had two signs by which I knew that I was in the right receptive mood. The one sign was the intensification of natural thought on very profound objects of knowledge, a debility of the body and strengthening of the soul until I sat there, my self all soul. The second sign was that imagination grew strong within me and it.seemed as though my forehead were going to burst. Then I knew that I was ready to receive the Name. I also that Sabbath night ventured at the great ineffable Name of God [the name JHWH]. But immediately that I touched it, it weakened me and a voice issued from me saying: Thou shalt surely die and not livel Who brought thee to touch the Great Name? And behold, immediately I fell prone and implored the Lord God saying: Lord of the universe! I entered into this place only for the sake of Heaven, as Thy glory knoweth. What is my sin and what my transgression? I entered only to know Thee, for has not David already commanded Solomon: Know the God of thy father and serve Him; and has not our master Moses, peace be upon him, revealed this to,, us in the Torah saying: Show me now Thy way, that I may know Thee, that I may there find grace in Thy sight? And behold, I was still speaking and oil like the oil of the anointment anointed me from head to foot and very great joy seized me which for its spintuality and the sweetness of its rapture I cannot describe
All this happened to your servant in his beginnings. And I do not, God forbid, relate this account from boastfulness in order to be thought great in the eyes of the mob, for I know full well that greatness with the mob is deficiency and inferiority with those searching for the true rank which differs from it in genus and in species as light from darkness.
Now, if some of our own philosophizers, sons of our people who feel themselves attracted towards the naturalistic way of knowledge and whose intellectual power in regard to the mysteries of the Torah is very weak, read this, they will laugh at me and say: See how he tries to attract our reason with windy talk and tales, with fanciful imaginations which have muddIed his mind and which he takes at their face value because of his weak mental hold on naturali science. Should however Kabbalists see this, such as have some grasp of this subject or even better such as have had things divulged , to them in experiences of their own, they will rejoice and my words will win their favor. But their difficulty will be that I have disclosed all of this in detail. Nevertheless, God is my witness that m intention is in majorem dei gloriam and I would wish that every,; single one of our holy nation were,even more excellent herein and purer than I. Perhaps it would then be possible to reveal things of? which I do not as yet know , . . As for me, I cannot bear not to give generously to others what God has bestowed upon me. Butt since for this science there is no naturalistic evidence, its premises being as spiritual as are its inferences, I was forced to tell this story of the experience that befell me. Indeed, there is no proof in this science except experience itself . . . That is why I say, to the man who contests this path, that I can give him an experimental proof, namely, my own evidence of the spiritual results of my own experiences in the science of letters according to the book Yetsirah. I did not, to be sure, experience the corporeal [magic] effects [of such practices]; and even granting the possibility of such a form of experience, I for my part want none of it, for it is an inferior form, especially when measured by the perfection which the soul can attain spiritually. Indeed, it seems to me that he who attempts to secure these [magic] effects desecrates God's name, and it is this that our teachers hint at when they say: Since licence prevailed, the name of God has been taught only to the most reticent priests.
The third is the Kabbalistic way. It consists of an amalgamation in the soul of man of the principles of mathematical and of natural science, after he has first studied the literal meanings of the Torah and of the faith, in order thus through keen dialectics to train his mind and not in the manner of a simpleton to believe in everything. Of all this he stands in need only because he is held captive by the world of nature. For it is not seemly that a rational being held captive in prison should not search out every means, a hole or a small fissure, of escape. If today we had a prophet who showed us a mechanism for sharpening the natural reason and for discovering there subtle forms by which to divest ourselves of corporeality, we should not need all these natural sciences in addition to our Kabbalah which is derived from the basic principles or heads of chapters of the book Yetsirah concerning the letters [and their combinations] . - . For the prophet would impart to us the secrets of the combination of consonants and of the combination of vowels between them, the paths by which the secret and active powers emanate, and the reason that this emanation is sometimes hindered from above . . . All this he would convey to us directly whereas now we are forced to take circuitous routes and to move about restrainedly and go out and come in on the change that God may confront us. For as a matter of fact every attainment in this science of Kabbalah looked at from its point of view is only a chance, even though, for us, it be the very essence of our being.
This Kabbalistic way, or method, consists, first of all, in the cleansing of the body itself, for the bodily is symbolic of the spiritual. Next in the order of ascent is the cleansing of your bodily disposition and your spiritual propensities, especially that of anger, or your concern for anything whatsoever except the Name itself, be it even the care for your only beloved son; and this is the secret of the Scripture that God tried Abraham. A further step in the order of ascent is the cleansing of one's soul from all other sciences which one has studied. The reason for this is that being naturalistic and limited, they contaminate the soul, and obstruct the passage through it of the divine forms. These forms are extremely subtle; and though even a minor form is something innately great in comparison with the naturalistic and the rational, it is nevertheless an unclean, thick veil in comparison with the subtlety of the spirit. On this account seclusion in a separate house is prescribed, and if this be a house in which no [outside] noise can be heard, the better. At the beginning it is advisable to decorate the house with fresh greens in order to cheer the vegetable soul which a man possesses side by side with his animal soul. Next, one should pray and sing psalms in a pleasant melodious voice, and [read] the Torah with fervor, in order to cheer the animal soul which a man possesses side by side with his rational soul. Next, one directs his imagination to intelligible things and to understanding how one thing proceeds from another. Next, one proceeds to the moving of letters which [in their combinations] are unintelligible, thus to detach the soul [from the senses] and to cleanse it of all the forms formerly within it. In the same way one proceeds with the improve. ment of his [bodily] matter by meat and drink, and improves it [the body] by degrees. As to the moving of letters we shall deal with some methods in the chapter Letters. Next, one reaches the stage of skipping as Scripture says, and his banner over me was Iove. It consists of one's meditating, after all operations with the letters are over, on the essence of one's thought, and of abstracting from it every word, be it connected with a notion or not. In the performance of this skipping one must put the consonants which one is combining into a swift motion. This motion heats the thinking and so increases joy and desire, that craving for food and sleep or anything else is annihilated. In abstracting words from thought during contemplation, you force yourself so that you pass beyond the control of your natural mind and if you desire not to think, you cannot carry out your desire. You then guide your thinking step by step, first by means of script and language and then by means of imagination. When, however, you pass beyond the control of your thinking, another exercise becomes necessary which consists in drawing thought gradually forth during contemplation from its source until through sheer force that stage is reached where you do not speak nor can you speak. And if sufficient strength remains to force oneself even further and draw it out still farther, then that which is within will manifest itself without, and through the power of sheer imagination will take on the form of a polished mirror. And this is the flame of the circling sword, the rear revolving and becoming the fore. Whereupon one sees that his inmost being is something outside of himself. Such was the way of the Urim and Tuinmim, the priest's oracle of the Torah, in which, too, at first the letters shine from inside and the message they convey is not an immediate one nor arranged in order, but results only from the right combination of the letters. For a form, detached from its essence, is defective until it clothe itself in a form which can be conceived by imagination, and in this imaginable form the letters enter into a complete, orderly and understandable combination. And it seems to me that it is this form which the Kabbalists call clothing, malbush.
Revived Qabala: Abraham Abulafia and Pope Nicholas III |