Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan on Experience, Consciousness, and Method

In this post, we will look at Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s views on consciousness, experience, and visionary mental images. His broad view of altered states of consciousness incorporated 4-D and 5-D space, hallucinogens, and learning to form steady mental images. In his discussion of forming a mental golem, he puts many of these ideas together.  He also describes the goal as seeking spiritual energy though mizvot or through attaining the non-verbal consciousness of hokhmah. His discussion of Ezekiel incorporates many of his broad views on the topic of consciousness incorporating removing the static of the mind, sensory deprivation, the flood of past memories, bright light, and then the state of nothingness and synesthesia.  Finally, we discuss his rejection of non-Jewish meditation even as he is busy mastering books about it and we conclude with his willing to re-script the Kabbalah for women.

This is part VI in a series on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan- see Part IPart II, Part III , Part IV and Part V for prior biographic discussion much of which has already been incorporated into Wikipedia.

aryeh kaplan pic
(Oil painting by Rabbi Kaplan)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan during one of his classes mentions how as a child he saw colors when people spoke, a common altered state of consciousness called synesthesia. In his book Jewish Meditation, he mentions his own eureka moment of figuring out a physics problem while taking a bath, and elsewhere he discusses how he uses “rebbono shel olam” as a mantra (he really meant japa). All of these, Kaplan called meditation. In general, he called any altered states of consciousness, synesthesia, telepathy, psychic powers, hypnosis, and opening the door of perception as meditation. Mediation is not mindfulness but the higher states of consciousness.

This is similar to the classic Moody Blues album, In Search of a Lost Chord (1968) where the lost chord of meditation is about attaining a higher state of consciousness, which includes music, art, LSD, philosophy, spiritual states, Eastern religion, and visualization.  Writing with a sense of this counter culture, Kaplan proclaimed that his works on meditation is only to be practiced by those pure and elevated. Yet, “we are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things we never thought possible.” (Innerspace 167) Our age needs to know about the higher wisdom, the lost chord.

Kaplan treats Kabbalah as a meditative state, by which he means an altered state of consciousness. This generally means, for Kaplan, the ability to form mental images, whether in physics or kabbalah. Hence, his discussion of visualizing the divine name in his book Jewish Meditation becomes a synecdoche for a wide range of mental imagining.

The previous section explained how to use the letter arrays together with the divine Name as a meditative device.  One of the manifestations of higher meditative states (as well as some drug-induced states) is hallucinogens, where one can voluntarily form mental images.  These mental images appear to be real and substantial.  When a person is in a normal state of consciousness, he may be able to form mental images, but they are weak, transient, and blurred by mental static.  In contrast, the images formed in a meditative state appear solid, substantial, and real. (Sefer Yetzirah 133)

Kaplan’s works repeatedly refer to hallucinogens, which he does not primarily mean drugs, even though they are mentioned, but the ability to reach these states of forming images. He even asks at the start of Meditation and the Bible, whether prophecy is due to hallucinogens. Kaplan claims hallucinogens give the ability to “voluntarily form mental images.” For Kaplan, forming images is best done in a meditative state

However, when Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was teaching Sefer Yetzirah, he said of the images of the kabbalah “it’s like tripping on LSD, grooving on black. If you do not have familiarity with these states of consciousness, then you wont understand what I am saying .” Several of those attending the class called out that they had familiarity. (taped class with psychologists – Jan 22, 1979). . Then, in such a state, one can imagine arrays of letters and divine names.

Jeffrey Kripal, the Rice University scholar of religion describes the approach to religion of the Romanian scholar of religion, Ioan Couliano (d. 1991) who taught at University of Chicago,  in ways very similar to Kaplan’s approach. For Couliano, the study of these practices has to be done from within, which means the leaving of three dimensional space toward four dimensions and beyond, these phenomenon brake our normal categories of time and space, leading us to the fantastic, complex, and strange. Kaplan consistently described kabbalah as five dimensional space and giving powers

The study of Kabbalah is a study of consciousness not a study of cultural texts, hence Kaplan gathered around him a core group of psychologists to understand these texts, not textual scholars or rabbinic scholars. And his method was to read a passage in a Kabbalistic text and translate it into terms of psychological and paranormal consciousness without seeking to contextualize that passage in the rest of the medieval kabbalistic book or in other kabalistic books.  His working assumption is that the original fantastic prophetic meanings were lost and the only way to find them was by discussing the passage with people who knew about consciousness.

Kaplan found the texts of the Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Abrhaam Abulafia, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Isaac of Acco and Hayyim Vital’s Shaar Ruah Hakodesh and Shaar Gilgulim as most valuable for this project. He did not find early kabbalists or much of the theosophic kabbalah as spiritual. Surprisingly, he did not find Chabad as mystical or meditative because, in his opinion, it had no higher wisdom or working with spiritual energy. In his classes, he claims to be able to derive all of Zoharic from Sefer Yetziarah. He also said in one of his 1979 classes that he had not looked at the Ari’s Etz Hayyim since 1970.

Golem of the Mind

The prime example of a meditative use of imagery is the creation of a golem. Moshe Idel in his book, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid describes how for members of the ecstatic school of Kabbalah, most notably Abraham Abulafia, the creation of the golem was a mental act of creation. Kaplan uses the ideas of Abulafia and applies them to texts elsewhere that took the creation of the Golem literally, such as Rabbi Eleazar of Worms. Kaplan uses this imaginary approach of Abulafia to describe the creation of mental images, the most important one being a golem, which he identifies with the astral body, as described by Eleazar of Worms and Hayyim Vital. Kaplan actually gives instructions for this process based on his idea that hokhmah is non-verbal and binah is verbal and confused. One enters the real of Nothingness at the height of hokhmah, there one can create things.  The magical is a sign of entering the higher states of consciousness.

It is out of this Tohu, this state of confused Binah consciousness, that one must create a palpable image.  There are many images that can be produced, but the most common is the mental Golem, the astral body.  The initiate thus “forms palpable substance (mamash) out of chaos.”  This implies attaining a state of Chakhmah consciousness.  The Kabbalists thus note that the word Golem has a numerical value of 73, the same as that of Chokhmah. In the process one visualizes the sefirtot by a process of carving hem in one’s mind as a form of visible air. Notice again the point that I am making that he treats the word meditation as the activity of carving sefirot in the mind.  The golem is the background for the carving of the sefirot.

In order to accomplish this, one must enter fully into the realm of Nothingness.  This is the highest level of Chakhmah consciousness, bordering on Keter.  One therefore begins with “nonexistence,” which is Nothingness.

When one reaches this level, he can actually make something “that actually is” (yeshno) or “existence.”  He can actually bring about results in the universe of Asiyah, which can then be reflected in the physical world.  In making a Golem, this would correspond to the state of consciousness required before the metal image could be imposed on the clay, bringing it to life. (Sefer Yetzirah 134)

]It is in this state of consciousness that one can visualize the Sefirot as “great pillars.”  One “carves” them out, this meaning that the image of the Sefirah is seen separately, totally filling the consciousness.  Even though the Sefirot are totally ineffable and indescribable, when a person is in this state of consciousness, he can “carve” them out.  They are then perceived as solid pillars, made of transparent air.  Like the air, the Sefirot are still invisible, but in this state of consciousness, even the air can become visible. (Sefer yetzirah 135 )

For Kaplan, in this process of visualization, one mentally forms each of the 22 part of the body culminating in putting them together as a golem. Kaplan thinks the ultimate goal is to combine the 22 visualizations into a full body. Notice that he turns Abulafia and Eleazar of Worms into a sense that these are instructions for today and he describes how to do it. One carves letters int he mind, the way he descbied carving the Tetragrammaton in other places in his writings. He concludes with the potential for still creating a physical golem.

He used each of the 22 letters to form a mental image of a different part of the body.  Each part of the body can thus be formed separately.  The ability to complete separate parts, however, does not prove mastery of the method of Sefer Yetzirah.  The final proof of mastery is the ability to assemble all these 22 objects into a single body.

This is the process of completing a mental Golem.  The initiate must not only form all the parts, but he must actually assemble them.  This means that while he is engaged in the meditation to create one part, he must not lose his mental image of the parts that he formed earlier.  As each part of the image is formed, it must be retained in the mind, with subsequent images added to it, part by part.  The amount of mental discipline, as well as the advanced nature of the meditative technique required for this, is virtually beyond description.

The creation of a mental Golem is therefore a culmination of the arts of Sefer Yetzirah, as well as a test to determine if one has mastered them.  This did not involve the actual creation of a physical Golem, sine this was only done on very special occasions. (Sefer Yetzirah 136)

For many, Kaplan’s writings were an Orthodox version of Moshe Idel’s ideas about Abulafia’s views.  Kaplan clearly did not rely on Idel because of the older and inferior texts used and the many weak readings of Abulafia in Kaplan. But an example of a an Abulafia truism, quoted in the name of Kaplan, is that for Kaplan similar to Abulafia and Idel divides “the kabbalah is divided into three categories, the theoretical, the meditative, and the magical.”  Thereby rejecting Scholem’s focus on the symbolic sefirot. Once again note the definition of meditation used by Kaplan, “meditative kabblah deals with the use of divine names, letter permutations, and similar methods to reach higher states of consciousness, and as such, comprises a kind of yoga.” (Sefer Yetzirah ix) But Kaplan delivers excitement for his readers through also using descriptions similar to the Tibetan material about an astral body made in mental visualization described by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935).

Spiritual Energy

In general, Kaplan is looking for the power and spiritual energy of the Kabbalah, the way that 1950’s American books on Indian thought picked out the passages on kundalini and chakras. When he was writing, the then current English writings on kabbalah did not emphasized these aspect of spiritual energy at all. For example, Kaplan notes that the position of uplifted hands played an important role in the priestly blessing. As a source, he gives the Bahir, which explains “that the reason for this is because the ten uplifted fingers parallel the ten sefirot and can therefore draw spiritual energy from them. This same position is also used by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia…”  (Meditation and the Bible, 70).  Elsewhere, he reiterates this as  “raised hands to focus spiritual energy.” He translates the theurgy and concern for sefirot into a more generic “spiritual energy”  moving quickly from sefirot to meditative kabbalah allowing the reader to think of kundalini or tai chi.

This is also the way Kaplan paints Rabbi Isaac Luria. “Very often, the Ari used to take a passage from the Zohar and meditate on it, perhaps repeating it over and over like a mantra, until the inner meaning was revealed to him.” (6) Kaplan skips from Abulafia and Rabbi Isaac of Acco to the writings of Rabbi Hayyim Vital, with little attention to the Zohar and theosophic Kabbalah which he finds too poetic and too anthropomorphic, but he credits this poetry to our not understanding its secrets. For him, Zohar is only poetry without the Ari. “The Ari’s teaching could be called the atomic theory of the Zohar: everything begins to make sense. One can go deeper and deeper, as far as the human mind can delve, and it will always yield new treasures. “(6)

Even the concept of sefirot, or the sefirah of malkhut, he makes into spiritual energy. Based on a passage in the Pseudo Raavad (Yosef ben shalom Ashkenazi) commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, he considered the word sefirot and the Livnat haSapir under the divine throne as based on the jewel sapphire, which is the jewel of the third eye, where humans can see visions.

Reaching Non-Verbal Consciousness

In all of his discussions, he accepts the known opinion of Aldous Huxley that the goal of altered states of consciousness is to remove all the noise of everyday life blocking the higher wisdom, a super normal perspective. The goal is to get to non verbal hokhmah consciousness that is higher than verbal binah consciousness.

Try for a moment to stop thinking.  You remain completely conscious, but there are not verbal thoughts in your mind.  If you are an average person, you may be able to maintain such a state for a few seconds, but immediately your mind begins to verbalize the experience.  You might say to yourself, “I am not thinking of anything.”  But as soon as you do this, of course, you actually are thinking of something.

For those few second, however, you have experience nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness.  If you work at this exercise, you can gradually learn how to extend the time in which you are in this state.  It is like a heavy pendulum, the longer you push it back and forth, the further it will swing.  Similarly, the more you learn to oscillate between verbal Binah consciousness and nonverbal Chakhmah consciousness, the deeper you will reach into the latter, and the longer you will be able to maintain this state. (Sefer Yetzirah 40)

It is very difficult to experience pure, nonverbal thought.  As soon as a person attempts to clear his mind of thought, he immediately begins to think, “Now I am not thinking of anything.”  The state of Wisdom or Chakhmah consciousness is one of pure nonverbal thought, which is very difficult to attain.

It is in an attempt to attain the state of Chakhmah consciousness that the various meditative methods are used.  Thus, mantra meditation attempts to clear the mind of reverie by filling it with the repeated words of the mantra.  Similarly, contemplation pursues the same goal by filling the mind with the contemplated object. (Sefer Yetzirah 39)

Theosophic Kabbalah is really about consciousness of knowing the harmony or resonance of sefirot and the word.  He gives a method or path of meditation-magic. First one binds oneself to the object, then one perceives its spiritual nature and evaluates the object.

When a person has an awareness of the Sefirot, he can then “examine” anything in creation and determine the Sefirah to which it pertains.  As he becomes proficient in doing this, he can use various things to strengthen his attachment to their associated Sefirah.  When the Sefer Yetzirah was first written, each individual had to do this on his own.  Now, however, there are many lists which associate various things and ideas with their appropriate Sefirot, and these can be used as aides in binding oneself to them.

The Sefer Yetzirah is also indicating here that when a person perceives the true spiritual nature of a thing, he also elevates that thing spiritually.  “Standing” refers to such elevation.  The expression, “make each thing stand” therefore says that when one “probes from them,” he elevates the thing that he probes. (Sefer Yetzirah 40-41)

kaplan-ncsy 1975-shelly lang
(At a 1975 NCSY Shabbaton with Shelly Lang)

Turn on, Tune in, and become a Prophet

One has to go within to activate one’s neural equipment in order to become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness. One needs to “Turn on” to the higher consciousness, and then one is to “Tune in” to interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. He reflects Aldrous Huxley description of the need to “Turn on and Tune in” (using Leary’s phrase).

Meditation does two things: it relaxes the mind’s reactions to all external stimuli and thus quiets down all the internal thought processes and normal reverie. In an ordinary state of consciousness the mind is filled with static. If you wish to see this static, just close your eyes for a few minutes. You will see a rapidly changing series of superimposed images which constitute a steady stream of internal stimuli. As long as you are seeing and hearing your own reveries, as long as you are talking to yourself, you are not going to hear God’s voice.  You have to quiet down all the mind’s internal messages to itself, which is a very difficult undertaking…

This is like trying to get a very weak radio signal and picking up a lot of static. If you have a good radio, you can tune it, cut down the static, and pick up a clear signal. Similarly, high-level meditation requires that you first eliminate all mental static. You may then be able to pick up a very faint signal that you cannot really hear. The next step is to carefully start tuning up the volume. Now imagine what will happen if your mind is not controllable yet when you turn up the volume. You will get your signal…the static will actually cause a devastating shock. (Innerspace 149-150)

Kaplan gave classes on the opening chapter of Ezekiel based on this approach. “Ezekiel saw five things: a storm wind, a great cloud, a fire, a Glow and Chasmal. According to the Zohar, the first four were Klipot, husks or barriers that Ezekiel had to experience before getting the vision. (Innerspace 149). For Kaplan, the storm wind is the aforementioned static.

The cloud  is sensory deprivation and the deautomation of complete focus. The psychologists Charles Tart and Arthur Deikamn were in their research working on these states in the 1960’’s.

“You have to quiet your mind even more. What do you see, then, when you get rid of all internal stimuli and quiet down the mind completely? Nothing, A very frightening nothing, an empty nothing.” “A sensory deprivation that is amplified a million times. You feel this overwhelming frightening nothingness.” (Innerspace 151)

It has been said that the best way to describe absolute nothingness is to speak of it as “what you see behind your head.”  Since vision does not exist in the back of the head, what one sees there is absolute nothingness.  If I ask you what you see behind your head, you answer that you see nothing.  Contemplating on what one sees behind one’s head is therefore a good way to learn how to visualize absolute nothingness. (Innerspace 89)

The fire is the experience of being flooded by all of one’s past memories; once again ideas based on Huxley.

Imagine you start feeling a closeness to God and realize that God knows everything about you and everything you ever did.  You are standing naked before God, with your memory wide open, completely transparent, without any jamming mechanism or reducing valve to diminish its force.  You remember everything you every did and see it in a new light.  You see it in the light of the unshaded spirit, or, if you will, in God’s own light that shines from one end of creation to the other.  The memory of every good deed will be the sublimest of pleasures and most delightful bliss imaginable. (Innerspace 151)

But your memory will also be open to all the things of which you are ashamed.  The wrongs you committed burn; they are very painful, but it is worse than physical pain.  It is not even like a psychological pain that you could hide or run away from.  There is no possibility of rationalization, no dismissing it, no escaping it.  It is a pain that is there. (Innerspace 152)

The glow is according to Kaplan, a brilliant black light

Imagine a black that is as vivid as a blinding sun.  Now in an ordinary state of consciousness you could not imagine it.  In a meditative state you can.  You can imagine a black that becomes deeper and deeper and glows and radiates and becomes blindingly bright. (152)

Finally, the vision of the Chasmal  is the speaking silence of the top of hokhmah, which is keter as a speaking silence  or the often discussed synesthesia, or the Buddhist Nothingness, (which I discussed in the last post). Most discussions place synesthesia at a lower stage of consciousness, but Kaplan places it at top. He situates his own childhood experience as within the prophetic.

Meditative Mathematics

A completely different form of meditative experience are his forays into the visualization of complex analysis in math, his discussions of the topological concept of a Rieman Sphere. As a given throughout his writings, Kaplan assumed that the Kabbalah was up to date about the physical world and working with five dimensional space, in practice four dimensional. Math problems and topology were treated as meditations and a vital form of forming mental images.

When we view the Sefirot as being ten directions in a five-dimensional continuum, we can also interpret this in another manner.  Every pair of Sefirot defines an infinite line, extended infinitely in both directions.  The end points of such an infinite line, however, come together and meet once again in the “point at infinity.”  This is a fact recognized by mathematicians, and considerable use of the “point at infinity” is found in complex analysis, the calculus of complex numbers.

In our three-dimensional continuum, we can likewise extend all lines outward infinitely.  The end points of all these lines would then be an infinite sphere surrounding all space.  However, each opposing pair of lines would meet at the point at infinity, and therefore, all ongoing times must meet at this point. Thus, in one sense, the entire three-dimensional space continuum can be seen as surrounded by an infinite sphere.  In another sense, however, this entire infinite sphere can also be represented by a single point- the point at infinity.  A point, however, is infinitely small.  Thus the point at infinity can be seen as being both infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. (Sefer Yetzirah 58- 59)

One can use this as a meditation.  Try to imagine the sphere at infinity and the point at infinity, and attempt to perceive how they are actually one.  You will then see that your usual conception of space and extension are not as simple as you believe. (Sefer Yetzirah 59)

Other Religions and Meditation

Kaplan was adamant and unyielding to all those who asked him about TM and other Eastern techniques that they were “foreign worship” (avodah zara).

Kaplan, however, saw the practices of other faiths as deriving form Judaism. He popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. He thought that the ancient Canaanite practice of worshiping a sacred grove or asherah was based on the Kabbalistic tree. Or that Rav Hai Gaon’s statement that the hekhalot were done by placing one’s ead between one’s legs became the ancient pagan worship of dust.

Realizing the importance of the tree symbolism in prophetic meditations, the idolaters attempted to emulate it. They actually planted trees which would serve as the object of their meditations and visions…. Through such Asherah trees, they hoped to ascend the spiritual Tree, which they most probably saw as the Tree of Life.” (107) In his speculative etymologies, Ashera is from the root shur- to see or have a vision of the tree.  “This ‘tree’ is often said to refer to the entire array of the Sefirot…ascending through this array plays a key role in prophetic meditation.”

“We often find counterparts of prophetic methods in idolatrous practices, since in many cases, the idolaters attempted to emulate the prophetic schools. A possible hint that this position was used among the idolatrous prophets is found in the Talmudic teaching that certain pagan Arabs used to “bow down to the dust of the feet….However, it would appear that some pagans viewed the prophetic position, where the great mystics sat with their head between their knees, and assumed that they were contemplating their toes, or the like. They adopted this practice and it gradually degenerated to the worship of the “dust of their feet.” (71)

Yet, Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices which were primary.


Finally, Perle Besserman, one of his long time students, and the one who promoted him for his radio and TV interviews, asked him about the role of gender in these experiences in that it always was a male mystic who identified with the male zeir anpin making love to female shekinah. Kaplan answered that after we figure out the visualizations for men, we can figure out a useful visualization for females. It should be noted, that in the 1970’s, Kaplan was one of the few teachers within the Orthodox world who regularly taught women and encouraged them to study the Talmud, Oral law, and Kabbalah.

As a side point, Perle was among the cadre of his students who complained that Kaplan was more interested in theory than meditative practice, that he was not teaching meditation rather explaining Ezekiel. She therefore  returned to Eastern practices becoming a Buddhist practitioner and teacher.

Judging from the overtly sexual language reminiscent of a Tibetan tantra text, I noted that the Sefer Bahir seemed to suggest that the union of male and female sefirot not only be visualized but literally enacted in sexual intercourse. Informing Aryeh that I was uncomfortable with the idea of a female Kabbalist visualizing herself reflected in the “great bearded male continence” and making love to her husband in the form of the shekhinah, I asked if there was a way we might re-configure Rabbi Nehumiah’s meditation for women.

“Sure,” Aryeh replied. “But it’ll have to wait until we’ve deciphered all the meditations in their original form first.” (Perle Besserman, A New Kabbalah for Women 73)


Kaplan interprets the four elements of medieval thought- fire, water, air, and earth-in modern terms. Fire is the electromagnetic force, water is the strong nuclear force of mesons, air is the weak nuclear force, and earth is gravity. For him, these, in turn, correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton. The forces of physics are the meditative forces. (Sefer Yetzirah 145-146). How does he make such leaps of connection?

This is not just our question, but was already a question when he was giving the classes. When discussing the Kabbalisitic image of the “Black Fire” of the Torah, Kaplan explained it as a black hole of negative energy. To which, one of the psychologists in the class asked: “Where are you finding this in the text?”

In the next class this question comes up again to which he answers with a verbal wink. Kaplan defined the sefirot as a three-dimensional spatial continuum of spiritual, time, and space implying that our goal is to get to the four dimension.  After this definition, he was asked: “Is that your own original analysis? To which Rabbi Kaplan answered: “A little bit  …. But it is Sefer Yetzirah”

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