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[sacredlandscapelist] Experience of the Kabbalah

To: Sacred Landscape 
From: Dan Washburn 
Subject: [sacredlandscapelist] Experience of the Kabbalah 
Date: Mon, 26 Jun 2000 18:55:09 -0400

The following is from a book called Gates of Justice by a disciple of
the 13th century Kabbalah Master Abraham Abulafia.  It is one of the few
accounts of personal experience in practicing the methods of medieval
Kabbalah.  (Taken from pages 148-152 of Gershom Scolem's Major Trends in
Jewish Mysticism.)

“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, 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 bad learned of the Torah and the Talmud, the impulse to keep
many of tbe 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 bade 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
numbers [Gemotrioth], 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 pondering over them in
philosophical meditation, a little different from the way 1 do now, and
so I continued for three nights without telling 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. 1 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 devote yourself to
combining holy Names, still greater things would happen 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 combinations half of the night, and
permutations half of the night.’ 1 practiced this method for about a
week. During the second week the power of meditation became so strong in
me that I could not manage to write down the combinations of letters
[which automatically spurted out of my pen], and if there had been ten
people present 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 which 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 forced 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 bad 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 1 said to him: ‘In
heaven’s name, can you perhaps 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 man’s 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 live! 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
spirituality 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
“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 muddled his mind and which he takes at their face value because of
his weak mental hold on natural 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 my 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.

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