Discover the meaning of Kabbalah, its essence and many expressions through time and space with Frank Ra.
Kabbalah: its meaning, essence and expressions
Sometimes the attempt to strengthen contact with the divine is a journey.– Moshe Idel
There are many layers (historic, cultural, social, etc.) of Kabbalah, as there are many garments of Kabbalah. In that sense, on an esoteric level, we can speak of several kabbalahs. However, on an ultimate/esoteric level, Kabbalah is one, or not two, like the reality it points to. Kabbalah has strong roots in Judaism. Without Judaism, it would have not reached us. So, while I am not sure that – strictly speaking – there is a universal Kabbalah which transcends its Jewish roots, surely Kabbalah points to universal truths, and there are ecstatic techniques which trascend ethnic and religious backgrounds, because they work regardless of the context.
Kabbalah means to receive, it also means tradition. Its essence is connection with the Divine. It is not about establishing such connection, because it is always here, now. It is about strengthening our awareness of it. Because too many times we fall asleep and we believe the dream.
Kabbalah in Languedoc and Catalonia
This was the purpose of the whole creation, that mankind should recognize and know the Divine and give praise to the Divine Name– Nahmanides
According to tradition, Kabbalah dates back to the very first beginning. There are very illustrious, ancient kabbalists mentioned in oral and written traditions. From a historic point of view, the seminal text of modern Kabbalah – the Sefer Yetzirah – has been commented by authors of the 10th century, likely based on manuscripts dating back to as early as the 2nd century, even if the title of the book was mentioned much earlier in written form. Another key text, the Bahir, surfaced in Southern France, around the 13th century. The original parts of this text, too, are believed to date back to the first centuries of the Common Era.
Important Kabbalists of this age are Nahmanides (especially active in Girona) and Baruk Togarmi (of oriental origins, he introduced Abulafia to new Kabbalistic studies). It is also important that some of the wisdom which reached Girona and Barcelona may have reached inputs from, and been inspired by, the Andalusian Ibn Arabi. The techniques which were being developed in the area, especially by Abraham Abulafia, also had some outputs which reached Christian thinkers. Ramon Llull is an example. His approaches to theological discussions – aimed to convert people to Christianity – were based on the same combinational principles taught by Abulafia. Through Llull, such principles became mnemonic and reached later thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo with his ‘Teatro della Memoria’.
Kabbalah in Castile
God is unified oneness- one without two, inestimable. Genuine divine existence engenders the existence of all creation. The sublime, inner essences secretly constitute a chain linking everything from the highest to the lowest, extending from the upper pool to the edge of the universe. There is nothing- not even the tiniest thing- that is not fastened to the links of this chain. Everything is linked in its mystery, caught in its oneness.– Moses de Leon
Moses de Leon was born, like the name suggests, in Leon, Spain Influenced by the work of Maimónides, he studied Kabbalah. His book, El Jardin del Eden, shows some similarities to Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’. It is possible Dante read this book, or heard about it, and took inspiration for his writings, especially for the ‘Paradiso’.
However, he is best known for the book he wrote while living in Guadalajara, the Zohar, even if the tradition credits it to Shimon bar Yochai. It is believed that other kabbalist, like Joseph Gikatilla, contributed to it. Ashlag solved the apparent gap between traditional and historic truths by saying that the Zohar must have been written from the level of consciousness of bar Yochai, so there is no ultimate dissonance between tradition and history, no matter whose hands were writing the book.
The Zohar is the most known Kabbalistic book, at least in our times. It is usually published in five volumes. The first three books are its core, and are credited to Moses de Leon. The other two (‘Corrections to the Zohar’ and ‘The New Zohar’) are credited to his extended circle of Kabbalists and students. The first printed version of the Zohar was made in Mantova, Northern Italy. New editions followed in Cremona, Livorno, etc. The modern version of the Zohar is the one edited by Yehudah in Jerusalem.
My suggestion: the Zohar is like a description of a travel, meant to be read by who has already been there, or who wants to taste a location through someone else’s eyes. While it makes for an amazing work of literature, it is very easy to get lost among its pages, especially if one has no compass. The Zohar is not really meant to take people to a wider level of awareness. But it is important to read selected parts of it.
Abulafia Kabbalah: Ecstatic Kabbalah in Sicily, Sparkle of the Renaissance
The purpose of birth is learning The purpose of learning is to grasp the Divine– Abulafia
Abraham Abulafia was born in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1240. He traveled extensively through the Mediterranean, and found a fertile soil in Sicily, likely thanks to the openness offered by the pre-existing phytagoric groups. More insights about Abraham Abulafia’s life are offered in my other articles, and by Gershom Scholem, Aryeh Kaplan, Elliot Wolfsonn, and Moshe Idel.
His focus was on experiencing what Kabbalah points to, instead of focusing on narratives and descriptions. He did write some ‘prophetic books’, however many of them did not survive the test of time and censorship. His more practical manuscripts were treasured by his students and other kabbalists, because they provided practical instructions to ecstasy. From Sicily, his work spread to mainland Italy, Israel, etc. In this case, too, Dante Alighieri is said to have been inspired by his encounters with Jewish thinkers. Abulafia’s theory of language may have influenced Dante’s work.
Abulafia’s manuscripts were translated into Latin, and formed a spiritual sparkle of the Italian Renaissance, thanks to the translations of Flavius Mithridates and Yohanan Alemanno, supported by Pico della Mirandola. Pico was trying to bridge Kabbalah and Christianity, showing that they basically agreed with each other. His work influenced in turn artists and mecenates of that age, which redefined what being human meant. According to Pico, each human being may prosper and ascend, or regress into a vegetative state. The importance put on each person and learning, instead of blind believes, did not gain him much support from the religious establishment.
Kabbalah after the Renaissance: Mantova and beyond
The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.– Baruch Spinoza
The wisdom of Abulafia’ techniques went through several adaptations, including being used as mnemonic techniques. Using a combinatory logic may have helped Pico’s famous memory to be so efficient. With the death of Lorenzo de Medici to which followed, interestingly enough, the deaths of some of the revolutionary thinkers he supported, plus the decision of the Spanish monarchs to expel all the Jewish people from Spain, Kabbalists were on the road again. Yohanan Alemanno went back to Mantova, bringing with him some of the precious manuscripts and the teachings of Abulafia. The family of Moshe Cordovero moved to Israel, where he created a harmonic Kabbalistic system which was then updated by his student, Isaac Luria. Hayyim Vital, who made available in writing the teachings of Luria, also quoted some of Abulafia’s work. He also influenced Judah Albotini, Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, and Hasidism.
The Zohar has been very popular, too, especially in Italy. As we mentioned, Mantova was a primary center where the book was edited and printed.
Frank Ra gave a presentation about Abulafia at Watkins Bookshop.
Frank is the author of two bestselling 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.