Discover what a spiritual inspiration of the Italian Renaissance can do for your life. Frank Ra gives an overview of the studies of Abraham Abulafia, and his Kabbalistic work.
Abraham Abulafia, and his Kabbalistic work, are a very interesting case of a major spiritual force, who is still to be discovered and acknowledged by the mainstream culture. Dante Alighieri is said to have been inspired by his theory of language. Abulafia was one of the major spiritual pillars of the Italian Renaissance. He inspired at least dozens of creative peoples (the “Beat Generation” read the translations of his manuscripts, as did Philip K Dick, etc.). Umberto Eco found a creative way to mention him in “Il Pendolo di Foucalt”. Even a Hollywood movie, starring Richard Gere, was not enough to turn Abraham Abulafia into a household name.
A Short Biography of Abulafia
Abulafia was born in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1240, and he soon moved to Tudela. He lost his father at the age of eighteen, and started to travel through the Mediterranean. He visited Israel, Greece, Italy (where he studied Maimonides), etc. Then, he returned to Spain, studied Kabbalah in Barcelona with Baruch Togarmi, and started to teach in Castilla. After going back to Italy, he decided to settle in Messina, where he wrote most of his manuscripts. Unfortunately, his non-denominational approach to Kabbalah and spirituality collided many times with the agenda and worries of the religious authorities, resulting in Abulafia moving to the small Maltese island of Comino.
Abulafia and the Italian Renaissance
Abulafia’s work formed the major inspiration in Pico della Mirandola work on Kabbala, that the Italian thinker presented in a Christian manner. Ramon Llull, a Christian missionary used techniques similar to the ones developed by Abulafia, and his books influenced Giordano Bruno’s thought. While we cannot tell for sure what happened, considering both Abulafia and Llull were active in the area of Barcelona at the same time, and that Abulafia wrote his books before Llull, I see two main options: Llull may have ‘borrowed’ them from Abulafia, or both had access to similar sources in Catalonia, which were preserving the wisdom which came from Languedoc, with the kabbalists who crossed the Pyrenees and brought with them the text and teachings of the Book of Formation.
What is Unique about Abulafia Kabbalah?
The vast majority of what has been written about Kabbalah, is usually focused on sephirots and other theosophical aspects. I call that the ‘descriptive’ Kabbalah, a way to write down what Divinity is, with allegories and within the limits of human languages. While this approach is useful to provide some pointers to the ultimate reality of Being, it is also easy to get lost among thousands of fascinating pages of text, and lose sight of the fact that a description of reality is not reality itself. Abulafia took a quite different approach: he focused on what is classified as prophetic Kabbalah, which I call ‘experiential’. Abulafia provided practical approaches to get in states of consciousness which facilitate awareness of the Divinity.
Abulafia provided practical approaches to get in states of consciousness which facilitate awareness of the Divinity.
There are seven main layers that Abulafia used to analyze spiritual texts, and three main approaches used for meditating:
– permutating letters in writing: by forming combinations between the letters/sounds that form holy names and vowels, in a systematic manner. This helps to go into a psychological state similar to the flow: engaged enough to be alert, repetitive enough to transcend regular consciousness.
– chanting the permutation, with rhythmic breathing.
– permutating the letters mentally, while manipulating their shapes etc.
Abulafia’s ‘Kabbalah of Names’ went well beyond a normative approach to spirituality, and it also brought attention back to the real ‘magic’: the betterment of one’s awareness, instead of trying to influence outside forces with spells.
Abulafia: a Non-Denominational Approach to Spirituality
While a lot of his manuscripts cover how to do this with Hebrew letters, he was open to use other languages and cultures as well. Abulafia’s was aware of meditation techniques coming from the Sufi tradition, as document in his writings. As a restless traveler, he reached students from all across the Mediterannean, who were speaking local languages. His most prolific time was in Messina (Italy), which had a strong tradition in Pitagoric studies, and where he wrote most of his books, and was able to teach without too many constraints from the Christian and Jewish authorities, until he was forced to move to Comino. Fear to collide with religious and secular centers of powers may well be one of the reason why so much of Kabbalah is about descriptions, and not experience. Linear knowledge is incremental, manageable and gives prestige to the ones who bring it. Experiential wisdom is exponential, subjective and disruptive, it is often seen as too unpredictable, and it can attract the scrutiny of the authorities.
So, why did his manuscripts survive? From a very practical point of view, many of them were dedicated to his Sicilian patrons. This resulted in the manuscripts being copied several times in Sicily, from where they spread to Tuscany where – thanks to the work of the translator Flavius Mithridates and of the famous Pico Della Mirandola – as we saw they became a major spiritual inspiration of the Renaissance. They also reached Tzfat in Israel, and the rest of the world. From a content point of view, Abulafia’s approach was quite unique, well described, and rich in personal details. This made the manuscripts stand from the rest of the Kabbalistic literature available. Kabbalists did share his texts, studied them, and sometimes quoted them in their work. The experiential component of Abulafia’s work made his contribution hard to replace and to suppress. The same cannot be said for the books where he shared the content of his prophetic experiences, many of those did not survive.
There are additional aspects, which were important for Abulafia especially considering that his ‘goal’ was prophecy, with the ecstatic experience being the reward itself. Abulafias’ techniques can be used to listen to what life has to say, without additional believes associated to it. His opennes to work with students from various walks of life and believes, and freedom from strict religious dogmas, make his Ecstatic Kabbalah very useful to make the best of today’s opportunities and challenges.
How to Discover More about Abraham Abulafia
In addition to the book I am writing – which has been inspired by Abulafia’s Ecstatic Kabbalah – you may like to read the books written by the leading Abulafian expert Moshe Idel. Other inspiring sources include Gershom Scholem, Aryeh Kaplan, David Cooper, Georges Lahy, Elliot Wolfson, Chaim Wirszubski, Giulio Busi, Amno Gross, Federico Gonzalez, Harvey Hames and the fictionalized life of Abulafia written by Carmelo Zaffora in Italian.
Frank Ra gave a presentation about Abulafia at Watkins Bookshop.
About Frank Ra: Frank is the author of two best-selling books, including BioHarmonizing. He is working on his new book, inspired by Abulafia’s Ecstatic Kabbalah, which will share practical ways to live our lives at our full potential, for the benefit of all beings.