Abraham Abulafia (born 1240) says that unlike Old Testament prophets, who passively experience different degrees of God‘s light through grace, the meditating Kabbalist consciously ascends through levels of light to the final realization of God.
Not unlike the Hindu mystics and their beliefs about Sanskrit, Kabbalist mystics believe that the Hebrew letters are both physical and spiritual. The three primordial Kabbalist letters (aleph , mem and shin) are said to contain all of the potential elements of the universe.
Because all Kabbalist letters are ruled by angels, when pronounced properly, a single letter is said to evoke its corresponding angel. And merely writing a Hebrew character apparently can transport the mind to a higher sphere.
While the Zoharic school of Kabbala advocates contemplation of various spheres within a ‘cosmic tree,’ Abulafaria says this is only a prelude to the contemplation of Names, leading to the Divine Name.
Abulafaria openly defies the chain of secrecy that has been maintained for centuries by previous Masters. In the Light of Intellect he claims to have been the first to bring this wisdom to the ordinary person (to include non-Jews), making him popular among Jews and Christians alike.
He also warns his students against the false meditation manuals found in the Middle Ages, which aimed at worldly power through magic.
The most prominent Kabbalist, Israel ben Eleazer, a.k.a. the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Holy Name), further popularized Jewish-based mysticism, making it universally accessible.
The Baal Shem Tov founded what is now called Hasidic mysticism. Following his example, the Hasidim democratized the Torah, delivering it from privileged scholars to the ordinary person.
As for the dangers of the Kabbalist mystical quest, Perle Epstein is worth quoting at length:
Kabbalists who uttered God’s Names and altered their breathing patterns were making use of the third rung of the soul’s ladder, the breath which tied them to the spiritual world. By binding himself mentally to a specific ‘spiritual being,’ the Kabbalist could either elevate himself further (as Abufalia taught) or he could obtain significant information about the future. This second practice was dangerous, for it often resulted in making contact with shedim, demonic beings who altered and confused the meditator’s mind. Along this path lay the danger of insanity. The ‘breath,’ or third level of soul, was therefore regarded as a two-edged sword. Only utmost purity of purpose assured the Kabbalist safe passage to the next rung. But spontaneous ecstasy would occur here, too-a condition in which the mystic, without any conscious effort, might find himself flooded with a rush of divine bliss. Yet even this level of ‘divine inspiration’ was not really considered true ‘prophecy.’¹
¹ Perle Epstein, Kabbalah: the way of the Jewish mystic, Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1978, p. 143.
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