What is Kabbalah? Are you still having trouble understanding how it came to be? This post may help you. In short, kabbalah is the name given to the 13th century texts which were able to synthesize ancient Jewish theosophy images and visions with medieval philosophic language and conceptual framework.. The visions of God in the Aggadah with its angels, divine names, and images of the Divine chariot are retold in the fixed organized system based on medieval cosmology and philosophy, especially mystical union.
The work of Professor Adam Afterman, chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University is dedicated to this synthetic process of ancient Jewish visions and philosophic mystical language. His Ph.D was from Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2008) , and he serves as a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His most recent excellent book:And They Shall Be One Flesh: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism(Leiden: Brill, 2016) is on this subject providing a wonderful overview of the issues of this synthesis along with a lucid exposition of the texts on mystical union in Judaism. (Unfortunately, it is not available at a reasonably priced edition).
Now, that the senior scholars of Kabbalah, Moshe Idel and Yehuda Leibes has both retired, there is a new generation of scholars of Kabbalah chairing the departments and who have recently put out works (and were kind enough to send me copies). I expect this interview with Prof Afterman to be the first of a series.
For those who still need a little more background about his project, let us look at the well-known Talmudic passage.
It was taught: Rabbi Yishmael b. Elisha said: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied:” May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou may deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice!’ And He nodded to me with His head. (TB Berachot 7a)
In the eyes of a traditional medieval thinker concerned with the divine, this text provided information that God has a right and left side and has a part that appears in visions called Akatriel. It also describes how prayer affects God and if read with aspiration to follow the Talmudic exemplar, it encourages one to seek visions similar to those of Rabbi Yishmael. When these ideas met Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Sufi mystical language then the vision and prayer takes on sharper contours of sefirot and mystical union, which we now call kabbalah, in that, it preserves as a revived tradition the ancient descriptions of God.
Much of 13th century kabbalistic texts written were commentaries on the commandments or on prayer. The kabbalists saw reality as a chain of Being, what Moshe Idel calls an enchanted chain. The goal of prayer and the commandments were to activate this chain or to merge with it.
Adam Afterman’s first book, based on his dissertation, was on an anonymous 13th century guide to mystical visualizations to be done during prayer that combines many separate strands of mystical language. Then he published several articles on Rabbinic esoteric traditions concerning prayer including enclothing God during prayer, visualizations of the Temple, the knot of tefillin, and various other antecedents to medieval kabbalah. This new book teases out the various languages of union separating the Rabbinic era texts from those exposed to philosophic language.
Afterman’s approach is disjunctive, viewing the world of Rabbinic Judaism as distinct from medieval Judaism. He considers the new philosophic language of mystical union as making medieval spirituality into a separate new project, unlike Idel who sees continuity with the Rabbinic sources. Yet, Afterman’s own studies on Rabbinic ideas and techniques and their use in Kabbalah shows continuity in esoteric matters not related to mystical union. Alternately, Afterman finds the Zohar as closer to Rabbinic ideals than medieval philosophic ideals because it does not have mystical union.
Afterman separates out the approaches of different Kabbalists including Rabbi Isaac the Blind, Yaakov Bar Sheshet, Abraham Abulaifa, parts of the Zohar corpus and Isaac of Akko. The book has a long first section devoted to the synthesis of the Bible and philosophy among Middle-Platonists such as Philo of Alexandria. Afterman shows the integration of philosophy and esotericism, more than one would understand form popular works on the topic.
A note on terminology. The original Greek word mysticism meant mystery, related to the idea of secret (sod). The word emerged in the 20th century as a broad category for all forms of Oneness with the Divine, including visions, emotional enthusiasm, letter magic, feelings of intoxication, cosmic consciousness, and contemplation. All of these diverse phenomena were identified and conflated with each other and with reaching a oneness with God, a unio mystica, During the 20th century, there were theological debates about whether this was the essence of religion or totally opposed to religion, and about whether Judaism had this peak experience.
Afterman adeptly separates out the concept of union in Philo of Alexandria from rabbinic esoteric practices and both from later medieval developments. Afterman carefully defines and differentiates the nature of union of each text. Therefore, the book could have avoided the overarching term mysticism altogether thereby producing a cleaner work.
The next stage in this analysis would be to analyze within given thinkers the complexity of the identities with the divine. The next question: how do the parts of prayer, various festivals or calendar of holidays generate different experiences and different instructions? Finally, it is a shame that Isaac of Acre’s, Ozar Hayyim is still in manuscript since it is a very important work.Someone should produce an edited text.
The interview is much longer than I generally post. But, I left the length since these interviews have become regular assignments on many syllabi and this one is a nice summery of many issues and also because his book is not readily accessible.
- How is communion with God a medieval innovation in Jewish thought?
The ideal of contemplative or mystical communion with God, I argue, is an innovation of medieval trends of Judaism all functioning under the influence of Hellenistic-Muslim theology and philosophy and in particular Neoplatonism. This innovation goes along with the transformation of Judaism into a religion of love – the two usually go together as intensified and realized love of God is reached through spiritual communion with God.
Although the terms and commandments to love and “cleave” to God are biblical, their spiritual interpretation was articulated first only in medieval Judaism with the important exception of the first century Jewish philosopher Philo.
Philo represents in many ways a form of Judaism that is very different from rabbinical Judaism of his time and in fact quite similar to medieval Judaism – but instead of synthesizing Judaism with Neoplatonism, he offered a synthesis with middle Platonism.
The two biblical commandments – “to cleave to the Lord” and “to love the Lord” that become the main axis of medieval Judaism, both for the philosophers and mystics. The synthesis of Judaism with Plato or Aristotle gives birth to a religion that is fundamentally different from the Judaism of the rabbis in the Talmud. I view this as fundamental revolution in which rabbinic Judaism after encountering forms of Hellenistic philosophy (medieval forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism) transformed into a religion of spiritual love and mystical communion and union with God. These are fundamentally new religious values and perhaps experiences were projected back into the biblical terminology of “devequt” and “love”.
In contrast, the Talmud and Mishnah created a religion that did not emphasize spiritual and abstract forms of religious perfection and indeed did not allow or demand the human to spiritually love God and practically denied the possibility to actually “cleave” to Him. The rabbis rather emphasized the communal and physical aspects of the religious life. Rabbinical Judaism is not in any way a spiritual religion, rabbinical Judaism transforms into a spiritual religion much later with medieval Jewish thought and even more so in kabbalah.
I view the question of union with God as part of this fundamental change in Judaism and that is way I consider, kabbalah to be ultimately a medieval phenomenon and not an ancient or rabbinic phenomena; this is in contrast to Moshe Idel, Gershom Scholem and Yehuda Liebes.
2) How is the approach to union found in the Kabbalah different than that of Philo of Alexandria?
Mystical union for Philo is the ultimate experience of coming close to God, standing in his “place” or becoming one with him. This experience is the most intimate experience of friendship with God, achieved by the movement of the human soul that not only escapes the body but also transcends the created world in order to stand where God does.
This might sound as a contradiction how can union be a form of intimacy? That’s exactly why Scholem argued that Judaism is a religion of intimacy therefore it cannot allow for full mystical union, which by definition does not allow some kind of gap or “space” for intimacy. I argue that some Jews did not recognize such contradiction in terms; in fact for Philo union is the ultimate form of intimacy.
Within philosophical kabbalah with a philosophical God i.e. static abstract and transcendent God- for example Abraham Abulafia and his ecstatic kabbalah. Mystical union is achieved through a radical and rather violent move of the human soul or intellect that breaks free from the body and material existence and becomes one with God and eternal life.
In classic sefirotic kabbalah uniting with God is part of a more complex and richer movement of acting upon the Godhead, unifying it, or participating in its inner dynamics of union and only then uniting with the united Godhead or the core of the Godhead the Tetragrammaton. In this sense that main trend of kabbalah developed a much more complex religious path in which union is a component in a complex dynamic in which the Godhead itself must first unite in itself before the mystic can unite into that unity. The integration in to the Godhead is part of a dynamics that serves God and not only man!
3) What is new in your approach to mystical oneness (henōsis) in Philo of Alexandria?
Most scholars deny that Philo developed a theme of mystical union with God (See David Winston and Andrew Louth) rather they think that there is only a mediated return to God via and through the Logos or an ecstasy. I read Philo as a union with the personal God, the same God we are commanded to “love” and yet at the same time to develop a direct relationship, unmediated union with the God of Abraham etc.
My hidush (insight) was very simple indeed – I checked all the places Philo refers to the biblical commandment to “cleave” or “unite” to God. I found several discussions that if you read them together it is possible I argue to reconstruct a theory of mystical union as the fulfillment of a commandment given to the Jews – and this practice is somewhat different from all the other discussions about visionary mysticism and logos based mysticism in Philo.
Thus I argue that mystical union as a theistic ideal grew out of the synthesis of middle Platonism and the Greek Torah, as a natural and logic outcome of philosophical monotheism itself. Once you develop the idea that religious perfection and love is to come close and transform into God– the religious ideal of becoming one with the One becomes the most fundamental religious experience and ideal or religious perfection.
This has not been presented this way although Idel and McGinn have pointed out that Philo does promote some form of union and that he stands at the background of the henōsis tradition in Neo-Platonism, which later impacted all three monotheistic traditions creating the ideal of western mysticism as the union with the One God.
Most text books grant Plotinus the credit of being the first to articulate the idea of mystical union without its theistic values and without the mystery of encountering a persona.
In contrast, Plotinus’ experience of the One is a “philosophical ecstasy” in which one experiences the absolute One but not the God of that one must love. I claim that mystical union is a Jewish idea, the result of a synthesis between middle Platonism and the Greek Bible- the biblical verses calling upon Israel to “cleave” and “love”, a monotheistic idea that is the natural outcome of theological monotheism.
4) What is Ancient Jewish mysticism?
In ancient forms of Jewish mysticism the encounter with God is through mystical vision and gnosis, through translation to paradise or the higher mythical realms. Ancient Jewish mysticism was through ideals such as apotheosis and theosis, enthronement and coronation. All of them indicate a form of transformation and even participation in Gods being and hierarchy of power but still part of a mythical setting, not abstract and spiritual “enough” to allow for mystical integration to take part. In these ancient settings mysticism is about empowerment and ascension in knowledge as participating in the divine power and knowledge – but no mystic or angel integrates himself into God Himself!
On this, I follow Elliot Wolfson who makes a clear distinction between forms of mystical henōsis and other forms of ancient Jewish mysticism. My study explores how medieval Jewish mysticism interprets and uses the ancient forms of vocabulary and symbolism in its new setting. For example the idea of apotheosis of Enoch into the arch angel Metatron is now understood as a form of mystical integration in an abstract spiritual and in fact internalized form.
Other symbols such as coronation that symbolized a transformation in hierarchy are now interpreted in terms of cleaving or uniting to the mystical light. Another idea is the midrashic idea that the patriarchs served as a “chariot” to God (based upon the biblical theme that God raised “above” Abraham and Jacob) – now in the mystical tradition of integration, in which, man and God integrate. God can even now dwell in the perfected person the same way He dwelled in the patriarchs.
5) How does Maimonides influence early Kabbalah?
Maimonides more than any other medieval Jewish thinker was instrumental in the development of forms of mystical paths that end in mystical union.
Maimonides internalized into his vision of Judaism the basic Aristotelian formula of knowledge and union, which was used to explain contemplative transformation of the human intellect into an angelic intellect or to explain of the human agent can become a metaphysical agent – then this was adopted further to explain how the human agent can integrate or assimilate into the Godhead.
The idea of spiritual transformation in this life leads to integration into spiritual realms associated with the world to come and eventually with the Godhead itself. The noetic mechanism of Maimonides helped the kabbalist explain how a human can integrate into God and how God may integrate in to the human.
I must stress that I don’t think Maimonides himself was a mystic! And I don’t think he thought that man can unite with God! But Maimonides developed a worldview that divided the universe into two realms – the material and the non-material metaphysical realm. The metaphysical realm is considered to be unified in itself as pure thought. Thus the religious path that leads us from material existence to noetic existence as angels – is at the same time a movement from multiplicity to unity a transformation from the corporal to the union of intellect.
6) What was mystical union in early Kabbalah?
In thirteen-century kabbalah we find the development of two mystical axis. (1) An axis of human integration into God through the human thought and another spiritual components that can cleave, integrate and unite with specific elements in the Godhead– usually the divine wisdom. (2)The opposite dynamics of the integration of the divine in to the human psyche, body and flesh.
The dynamics of mystical integration, where the divine and the human are living not separately but integrally– the human on a collective basis as the Jewish people (the “Assembly of Israel”) and on a personal basis (the kabbalist or mystics) participate in the inner life of the divine.
The fact that the Jewish collective was consider now to be a fundamental organ of the Godhead explains mythically the idea that the Jewish people are part of the divine, the participate in the divine life, affect it, experience it and integrate into it on different levels sometimes on a unitive basis. Gershom Scholem identified that the two key terms of early kabbalah are “devequt” and “kavvanah” meaning mystical integration\union and theurgy through intention respectively. They are both part of a mystical life mediated through a by the commandments and the Torah.
The early kabbalists of the 13th century developed the idea of uniting with God through several philosophic forms.
First, in Neoplatonist forms of kabbalah human thought and will are capable of uniting with their divine correspondences, the Divine Thought and Will. In turn, the human agent can then tap into Gods Will or Thought act upon it, help the divine integrate itself, and draw light from the higher forms of the Godhead to the lower forms or vessels of the Godhead. At the same time, the union allows for divine energy in the form of light to descend from the divine to the human.
Second, the neo Aristotelian language of “knowledge as union” (via Maimonides) explained how integration might lead to union even in the life.
Later Sufi images further enriched the path of integration and mystical union towards the end of the thirteen century.
Kabbalah developed there are two fundamental vectors: the integration of man into God–and the opposite integration or embodiment of the divine into the human.
Isaac the Blind, the first kabbalist in Europe in the 1190’s, used Neoplatonic ideas to develop a theory of contemplative union of the human thought with the divine wisdom. Then the contemplative unified the divine components and concluded by drawing down light into man, The performance of any ritual and blessing that mentions the Tetragrammaton, allows cleaving to it, uniting to it and then drawing it down to the concrete realms.
One of his students Jacob Bar Sheshet writing in the middle of the thirteen century drew on Judah Halevy’s Kuzari to develop a different trend of mystical embodiment – that of the human becoming a vessel for the Tetragrammaton to dwell in – as a level of union.
7) What was unique about Isaac of Acre?
Isaac of Acre (late thirteenth century), synthesized different trends of kabbalah including the ecstatic kabbalah of his teacher R. Nathan, philosophical discourse of union through knowledge and also powerful Sufi images. These diverse strands allows Isaac of Acre to present the most articulated descriptions of mystical union in classic kabbalah.
For example he describes the moment of unio mystica as following:
On that day, I saw the secret of the fire that consumes fire. The secret of fire is Form, and the consuming here is when one thing is swallowed by another, and “[man] shall cleave to his wife becoming one flesh”(Gen. 2:24). The intellectualizing Hasid allows his soul to ascend and to properly cleave to the Divine Secret, which cleaves to her and swallows her [the soul]. […]
The secret of this consumption is the true devequt. If the soul is consumed it will consume, […] i.e. if she will pursue the Intellegibilia she will perceive them and they will be held and engraved [upon her]. Truly the secret of consumption.
Of this consumption and devequt it is said [Ps. 34:9] “taste and see that God is good”. [The soul shall] cleave to the Divine intellect and He will cleave to her- for more than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse (BT Pesahim 112). She and the Intellect become one entity, as one who pours a pitcher of water into a flowing spring, all becoming one entity. This is the secret intention of our Rabbis of blessed memory when they said: “Enoch is Metatron”, which is the secret of “a fire that consumes a fire”.(Ozar Hayyim, fol. 111a see: Afterman, And they Shall Be, pp. 177-178).
Here we find images and symbols enriched with Sufi symbols of unio mystica such as the drowning and swallowing. “His soul shall cleave to Ein Sof and will return to the complete universal (klali gamur) after being particular when she was imprisoned in her vessel. She will return to become universal in her true secret source.” (Isaac of Acre, Ozar Hayyim, fol. 112a)
What’s new in my analysis is that I put together all of the elements that he uses about reaching union while still in the body. This is a rather rare and very risky state, acknowledged as possible by the theological system of Nahmanides and his followers, typified by the ascent of Enoch into an archangel Metatron. Following Nahmanides, Isaac saw mystical union as achievable in the life at the risk of mystical death.
Also following the ecstatic Kabbalist R. Nathan he thinks that the union of man and God provides a fuller Being that before i.e. that God desires the union no less than human and that the result of the union of man and God is more than just God himself.
8) What are the types of mystical union in the Zohar?
There exist a major dispute among scholars about the mystical nature of the Zohar.
On the one hand, we have Melila H. Eshed and Moshe Idel who consider the Zohar as a relatively mild form of mystical path not promoting ecstatic and unitive forms of mysticism. The Zohar does not use “strong” techniques and does not describe ecstatic and unitive moments. In addition, the Zohar does not employ philosophical phrases of “knowledge as union” that was so common and important in other kabbalists. In fact the Zohar almost does not use the language of “devequt” in a mystical sense. The mystical path of the Zohar is rather mild and especially not ecstatic and not unitive.
The Zohar continues the rabbinic and ancient forms of mysticism that did not promote integrative mysticism, yet at the same time it does promote a complicated theory of integration – most clearly on the collective level where the “assembly of Israel” is now, at times, untied with the Godhead. In addition, the individuals of Israel integrate, to different extents, into the Godhead. This integration leads to the participation in the inner light and holy spirit descending from above on the collective being of Israel and into each one of Israel..
Eliot Wolfson reads the Zohar as describing powerful mystical forms of integration leading indeed to mystical union. He reads the theosophical dynamics of union within the divine as referring also to human processes that describe parallel human process of integration.
The best example to discuss the issue is the way that the Zohar perceives the Shabbat as a special time in which the Godhead undergoes a dramatic change, it unifies itself and the collective of Israel are part of this unification, they participate and unite with the mystery of the one that is undergoing every Shabbat evening.
The question is this: when the Zohar describes the Godhead unifies into the secret of the One on Shabbat evening – does this indicate that the Jewish people participate, experience, or even become one with this state?
The following Zoharic source known as “Kegavanah” incorporated in the Hasidic “qabalat Shabbat” is very representative both of the participatory modus and of the embodied manner in which unification is taking place:
The Mystery of Sabbath: She is the Sabbath – united in mystery of the one, so that mystery of the one may settle upon Her. At the beginning of the prayer of Shabbat evening (maariv) the Holy Throne is united in mystery of the one, arrayed for the supernal Holy King to rest upon Her. When Sabbath enters She unites and separates from the “Other Side”, all judgments removed from Her. She remains unified in the holy radiance, adorned with many crowns for the Holy King. All powers of wrath and masters of judgment all flee; no other power reigns in all the worlds. Her face shines with supernal radiance, and She is adorned below by the Holy People, all of whom are adorned with new souls. (Zohar Terumah, 2:135b, my translation)
The time of the arrival of Sabbath is depicted first not as an event of a unification but as a process of separation, an overcoming of a state of being grasped by “the Other Side”, a process that is concomitant with the prayer for the entrance of the Sabbath. Only once this movement of separation is completed can the mystery of the One “settle upon her” – that is, upon the Shekhinah, who is identified with the Sabbath – and allow for a rejuvenation that is taking place by the adorning with new souls of the congregation of the Holy People and a descent of an effluence from the supernal source.
The initial integration of the collective of the “assembly of Israel” into the Godhead that takes part every Shabbat allows for the collective to participate in the mystery of the One. This is symbolized by the crown and Holy Spirit that adorn each of the individuals, which function now on a higher level of unity and integration with the Godhead than throughout the six days of the week. The crown and the Holy Spirit, or the additional soul received on Shabbat, is an ontological extension of the mystery of the One bestowed by the higher elements of the Godhead on to the feminine Shekhinah, which is identified with the community of Israel. In that way, all of Israel on a collective basis participates in the inner union and unity of the godhead. In the latter part of the passage, the Zohar explain that the Holy Spirit is the extension of the point of union and unification, the mystery of the One that is the Shabbat.
I argue that on Shabbat and other unique times the collective of Israel is partially integrated into the Godhead– this is symbolized through the union of the feminine persona of the assembly of Israel that “unites” with God. The result is spiritual or mystical integration of the divine into Israel experienced as the Holy Spirit descending unto the people of Israel.
On the Sabbath, the dynamics of “theosophical union” i.e. union taking part in side the Godhead apply to kabbalist symbolically through the crown of light that is on his head and the Holy Spirit that is enveloping him.
Primarily the dynamics of union in the Zohar apply to the Godhead and not to the human realm. Wolfson does not accept this distinction in the Zohar and considers all dynamics above in the Godhead reflect and participate in those below. I believe that this is true only sometimes when the Godhead absorbs the assembly of Israel then they are part of the Godhead and experience the dynamics of union above – other times they witness those dynamics from distance.
9) Is your book just a defense of Idel’s challenge to Scholem on Unio Mystica?
I hope not! The question is not if there is Mystical Union in Judaism (you have shown it also in your book Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin) but in what ways was this idea and practice developed in Jewish sources. How did Jews articulate the language the phrases and symbols to refer to such idea? How did they transform ancient forms of mysticism into the medieval forms of integrated mysticism of cleaving and union?
By the way, there are many people that continue arguing about this not willing to accept that this idea, ideal and experience is expressed in Jewish sources.
My method was to forget about the theological debate if and why “Judaism” can or not allow union and examine what different Jews actually wrote about the topic. My focus is on the language, that express the idea that man unties with God or with the Godhead. I say if a Jew writes that he united with God. I believe him and have no desire to interpret him differently. I’m not interested in trying the define the difference between Christian and Jewish mysticism by articulating a false criteria – I mean that Christians unite and Jews only reach partial dynamic communion, as Scholem argued.
I said if some Jew chooses to write about his integration with God using unitive vocabulary I will follow up on that. I’m interested what does he mean? Personally I have no problem with such claims and much of my work is to demonstrate that such claims for union are not necessarily pantheistic – and even if they are so what?
Idel and others started by opening a new perspective on the place of union as a theological apriori criteria (see also what Idel wrote in his first chapter of his book Enchanted Chains) and I offer a systematic investigation into the topic. I’m trying to investigate further the ways the kabbalist talked about mystical union and integration with God in the body (embodiment and even incarnation), the language they used, the symbols the used (like the kiss and crown).
I wrote it primarily out of personal interest and I needed to investigate this matter – especially because of what I read and knew about Hasidism and Kabbalah. I wrote on earlier article on dvekut and my interest grew from there.
The fact that Scholem wrote that there categorically no unio mystica- but I came from a place that thought there is unio mystica – so this contradiction I found worth investigating even though some of my conclusions might be similar to Idel’s and Wolfson’s ideas.
I focused in this study on both the dynamics of human integration into God and the opposite integration of God into man at the extremes of both dynamics when both become unitive. I found that the Jewish sources are loaded with unitive experiences and expression much more than I imagined at the beginning. I’m writing now about 16th century kabbalah and the same is true – I view Judaism now as a religion of union or unitive integration with God promoting this idea freely without almost any constraints or objections.
In a way, because Jews were much less theologically orientated they felt rather free to write about union with God without sensing it to be problematic. They had less constraints upon their thinking so they could easily develop unitive practices without feeling they are doing something wrong.
It was only much later under the influence of the great Jewish philosopher Herman Cohen that Jewish intelligentsia started to think that union with God cannot be a Jewish idea or experience exactly differing Judaism from Christianity. For Cohen, such language leads to Spinoza’s pantheism- defined by them as the theological borderline for Jewish heresy.
The sources themselves tell us a totally different story- that Judaism is the religion of union – that the desire for union with God is a natural outcome of monotheism and the development of integrative ideals of love and devequt.
10) Do you strive for mystical union? Why is this important to you?
Personally I’m not a mystic but a scholar of Jewish literature. I’m personally very interested in “radical” forms of religious mysticism. I view myself as focusing on the mystical moments and mystical vocabulary and imagery in the Jewish literature. One can focus on many other elements in this literature.
The idea of mystical integration and fusion between man and God I think is the most exciting idea that exists in all religions I mean what is more exciting than the idea that man and God can fuse or integrate and even unite? I view most of kabbalah and Hasidism as exploring this idea. I’m interested in all forms of integration unitive or not – and there is wide spectrum and I’m now investigating some forms of mystical embodiment that are not qualified necessarily as unitive.
In addition the fact that my father the poet Allen B. Afterman Z”L was a kabbalist and mystic very much interested in the phenomena of mystical union (see his poetic exposition of kabbalah Kabbalah and Consciousness in which he dedicated an entire chapter to mystical union.) did have its impact on me – and that’s natural.
11) Can you tell me about the prayer technique of the anonymous 13th century work that you edited.
The text I analyzed and offered a critical edition is a unique synthesis of ecstatic techniques of letter permutation with prayer, as the content of prayer. The anonymous text was written around 1250 in Spain and it’s an ecstatic manual to the prayers. It is rather similar to Abraham Abulafia’s mystical techniques which are not part of the prayer – here they are used as mystical manual for the performance of the daily liturgy in which the mystic uses a very sophisticated technique of letter permutation during the daily prayer leading to ecstatic experiences.
The anonymous 13th century kabbalist used a neural ecstatic technique as a prayer technique to draw down power, light and voice in the human consciousness and into the world. The practice leads to the revelation of angels and divine lights and voices.
The work foreshadows the later synthesis in the sixteen-century between ecstatic kabbalah and prayer and other forms of kabbalah like the Zohar were possible from the beginning- Abulafia represents only one possibility in the history of ecstatic kabbalah.
This commentary is a very important example of how early kabbalists added on to the daily liturgy mystical practices, associating them with a rabbinic term of kavvanah (intention) and the biblical tern of devequt (cleaving to God).
12) Why was Enclothing God important for the development of Jewish prayer?
There is a very ancient Jewish tradition that views God as enclothed with clothes of lights and colors in particular the color of the rainbow. God’s revelation was in in light and colors as is prayer. For them, collective prayer affects God’s appearance. When he receives prayer he becomes luminous. His appearance reflects his relationship with his people.
Later a fundamental step was taken in which the energy of prayer, which is the voice of prayer of the community of Israel transforms into lights and colors thereby clothing God. In a third phase, the collective spiritual of Israel becomes those cloths, in particular the crown and the tefilin that are on God reflecting his erotic relationship with his people. A classic example of the mutual crowning of Israel as a collective and God is to be found in Shir hakavod (Hymn of Glory) and is fundamental in the Zohar and kabbalah.
13) How was the myth of the knot of God’s tefilin important for early Kabbalah?
The knot represented the fundamental Kabbalistic notion that God is a halachic agent: based upon BT Brachot describing God putting on tefilin, tallit and praying. They envisioned God performing the rituals and not only demonstrating their details to Moses. These ideas were then used as by the medieval kabbalist to show that the commandments are divine. They are not only given by God, but they are also performed by God.
In addition, the Godhead contains the commandments and the Torah in their spiritualized
form. Given to the Jewish people as an extension of God they are now the main vehicle to connect or integrate with God. Reaching God through the commandmentsis a fundamental insight articulated by the Bahir and followed by the early Kabbalists.
God’s wearing tefilin is the heart of Moses’ personal revelation on the mountain. At the most intense moment in which the prophet tried to comprehend the divine nature he experienced the commandments. This becomes symbolic of the apotheosis of the Torah and the commandments into the Godhead. Moses that desired to view God’s face viewed the knot of the tefilin instead. The knot is the visible icon of the invisible God.
14) What was the technique of envisioning of the Merkavah?
In the body of literature known as Hechalot and Merkavah there are many techniques and practices used to induce trance and elevate the human agent to participate in the heavenly liturgy undergoing at the same time.
Generally speaking Merkavah mysticism and liturgy go hand in hand in context, technique and content. I mean by this that reciting a prayer, a poem, was considered as a main technique to ascend to heaven and then participate in the heavenly liturgy.
It seems that by chanting the same songs that the angels are singing at the same time in heaven the transports the mystic to participate together or in communion with the angels. Many of these prayers were memorized by the mystics that heard them in heaven and then introduced them into the daily liturgy. In all of the Jewish world besides the rabbis for example in the apocrypha, in Qumran, in Hechalot and Ashkenazi forms of Judaism and later forms of medieval Jewish spirituality there is fundamental link between visionary mysticism and prayer.
In the Talmud, the rabbis instituted the formal public liturgy and made all efforts to create a non-mystical prayer. They severed the link between Merkavah and prayer in both ways – when the rabbis write about entering the Pardes of Merkavah speculations there is almost no mention of prayer and prayer itself is almost totally detached from Merkavah mysticism. The qedusha, the sanctum is considered as a kind of compromise of the rabbis with the mystical circles to give something, some form of recognition of the heavenly liturgy but again without any mystical inclinations.
In my article I examined two rabbinic discussions that nevertheless suggest some “lost” contact between some technique of envisioning the chariot or Merkavah speculations and prayer.
I suggest that the discussions in BT Brachot 21b and Mishnah Megilah 4:6 reflect a practice of contemplative envision of the chariot during the public prayer while citing the qedushah (sanctum) There was some sort of mystical practice of contemplation of the chariot practiced in the content of reading the qedusha in the public institutionalized prayer.