20 minute read

Kabbalah Mysticism

Types Of Kabbalah

The vast literature assumed to belong to Kabbalah, composed in many countries and continents over the span of more than eight centuries, is hardly a unified literary corpus. Many capital divergences may be discerned in the thousands of texts and manuscripts, and it is difficult to offer a definition to cover those corpora. Differing speculative models informed the thought, the praxis, and subsequently also the writings of kabbalists and Hasidic masters. Far from representing a unified or monochromatic line of thought that allegedly has changed throughout history, the diverse kabbalistic literature focused around at least three major models: the theosophical-theurgical, the ecstatic, and the magical-talismanic model. The interplay and interactions between these three models characterize many important aspects of kabbalists' concerns and of kabbalistic creativity.

The three models of kabbalistic thought interpreted the earlier Jewish corpora, the Bible and rabbinic literatures, in novel ways. However, these new interpretations were only rarely totally new impositions of medieval intellectual constructs on older material. The kabbalists claimed that their writings constituted the ancient, hidden Jewish tradition, which contains the essence of Judaism. This contention notwithstanding, the conceptual divergences between the various kabbalistic schools render such an assertion difficult to support. The impact of ancient and medieval material from non-Jewish sources—for example, Hellenistic sources of Neoplatonic, hermetical, and Neopythagorean extraction—is significant and discernible in all the brands of Kabbalah. Most of those sources had been mediated, changed, and sometimes enriched by Muslim authors. In addition to the contribution of those speculative types of materials, medieval kabbalists also developed some modes of thought found in earlier kinds of Jewish written literature, like the rabbinical and the magical ones, and had access to some forms of earlier mythological themes, which have parallels in ancient times and which might have reached them orally.

Theosophical-theurgical model.

The most widespread among the kabbalistic models is the theosophical-theurgical. It deals with the different and complex maps of the divine realm—this area of speculation is described by scholars as theosophy—and with the manner in which human religious deeds impact on it—what may be called theurgy. The belief in the impact of the performance of the commandments, or of transgressions, on supernal realms is crucial for the understanding of theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah.

Cardinal for this kabbalistic model is the widespread vision of the realm of the divine as constituted of a series of ten divine powers, designated as sefirot, originally a term standing for mystical numbers, and sometimes of a higher power, designated as infinity, Ein Sof. This is a dynamic system, in which processes of interaction between those powers and themselves, and between human religious activities and some of those divine powers are quintessential for both the divine and human realms.

Ein Sof—Infinity











Some kabbalists assume that the ten sefirot constitute the divine essence and that the divine realm is a complex system, while other kabbalists assume that those powers are instruments of the divine activity—creation, revelation, and providence—or vessels mediating the presence of the divine in the extra-divine realms. Fewer kabbalists assume that those sefirot constitute the divine presence in the world, while some others assume the presence of those powers within the human soul. The emergence of the system of ten sefirot from the higher realm is described in terms of emanation, in Hebrew Atzilut, or expansion, hitpashetut, processes that create some form of chain, shalshelet, between the highest divine realm and the lower worlds that are produced by the sefirot. In the sixteenth-century Lurianic Kabbalah the divine configurations have even more pronounced anthropomorphic natures, called five partzufim, which constitute the main structure of the divine realm.

There are three main ways to explain this affinity between the higher and the lower realms: the isomorphic model, the augmentation model, and the ritualistic reconstitution of the shattered divine world—tiqqun. The isomorphic model assumes a structural similarity between the lower and the higher realms, as evident in many texts, and a sympathetic affinity between them, which allows the impact of the lower structure on the higher one. The Torah as a symbol is conceived of as a faithful representation of the divine form. By knowing the correspondences between the two structures, the Kabbalist is able to activate the supernal realm by performing religious rites.

The theosophical-theurgical model informed many of the discussions in Spanish Kabbalah and flourished afterward in an even more vigorous manner in sixteenth-century Safed. This model assumes that language reflects the inner structure of the divine realm, the sefirotic system of divine powers. Language was conceived also as influencing this structure, by means of theurgical activities that aim to restore the harmony within the divine realm. Either in its cognitive-symbolic role or in its theurgical-operational function, language has been conceived by this type of Kabbalah as hypersemantic. This means that not only is the ordinary sense of language maintained by the kabbalists, but its basic function as part of the kabbalistic enterprise is due to a surplus of meaning, which adds semantic fields to that or those designated by the ordinary meaning. The two aspects, the symbolic, or referential, and the theurgical, or performative, should not be conceived as totally independent: the symbolic role of language, namely the concept that it reflects the structure of the divine powers, is often only one face of the coin, whose other face is the use of the symbolic knowledge in order to amend processes taking place within the divine realm.

The scroll of the Torah is conceived of as a graphic symbol of the divine form, and this is the reason why the Kabbalist assumes that it is not only the semantic message involved in it that is religiously important but also the very contemplation of the manner in which the text has been written. This comprehensive symbol constitutes a faithful representation of the entire divine realm within the lower reality—a sort of icon of God, which incorporates all the details of the divine form.

Another widespread symbol is Jerusalem. This city was conceived of in both Biblical and rabbinic sources as the unifying place between the mundane and the divine realms, an omphalic locus. However, because of its geographical distance from most early kabbalists, Jerusalem was the starting point for the transition to guessing the higher divine reality. Still, even in such a case—when the symbolizing reality existed but was distant and essentially unapproachable—the function of the symbol was essentially the same. Jerusalem was still a functioning city during most of the Middle Ages, but was practically unknown, at least in a direct manner, by those Spanish kabbalists who viewed it primarily as a symbol. Jerusalem as a symbol functions on two levels: as a present, available literary symbol it works because of the special nature of the biblical text understood by the kabbalists as reflecting the divine sphere of existence; and on an ontological level, as a symbolum in factis, the temporally absent and geographically remote city represents a spiritual and thus cognitively remote divine power. These two separated symbolic channels were supposed to lead to one and the same divine entity, in most of the cases the last sefirah, Malkhut.

However, in order to understand how two so different entities—a name (a linguistic unit), and a city designated by the name—may help someone to reach the invisible divine power, the Kabbalist would assume that there is a profound affinity between a name and the entity it designates, a phenomenon that can be described as a linguistic immanence. Jerusalem is not merely a conventional name for the city—it summarizes by the structure of the word the very essence of the earthly city and at the same time, points to her supernal, divine counterpart. The triad of a name, a geographical entity, and a superessential, divine attribute that governs both the name and the geographical entity, is therefore a rather common Dov-Der Haskelevich, a Jewish rabbi who makes predictions based on the Kabbalah, New York City, 2000. Prophecies and other paranormal experiences are characteristic of the ecstatic model of kabbalah, which began to appear in the writings of some authors as early as the late thirteenth century. © COONEY REBECCA/CORBIS SYGMA triad that informs many symbolical processes in Kabbalah. However, given the fact that the starting point of the vast majority of kabbalistic symbols is the biblical texts and their intricacies, whose counterparts on the historical or geographical realms were either no longer existent or geographically very remote and beyond the scope of the more ordinary medieval Kabbalist living in Europe, kabbalistic symbolism should be defined as predominantly inspired by authoritative texts and their religious values and as functioning by means of the linguistic units that constitute these texts. Kabbalistic symbolism is fundamentally a code to interpret the canonical texts, while ignoring forms of realia that are divorced from the contents of the sacred scriptures. Rhetoric about the absorbing nature of the Torah is found in the theosophical Kabbalah, and it provides the nexus between claims of symbolizing everything via the absorbing characteristic of the Torah.

The ecstatic model.

Ecstasy is a constant of human religious experience, as the wide dissemination of this type of experience in so many cultures demonstrates. Ecstatic experiences became more and more evident in the written documents of Jewish mysticism in the mid-thirteenth century. It seems that a process of adoption and accommodation of paranormal experiences was characteristic of medieval and early modern Jewish thought, which addressed with a growing seriousness paranormal experiences as legitimate events. The concomitant spread of the Maggidic experiences in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—particularly in the diary of Joseph ben Ephraim Karo (1488–1575), Isaac Luria's claims of paranormal revelations, and the discussions of cases of possession in the sixteenth century—may bear testimony to the legitimation of their discussion in public rather than to the emergence of new forms of experiences. No movement in Judaism emphasized the importance of the pneumatic experiences, in their most intensive and extreme forms, as did Polish Hasidism.

The ecstatic model is concerned with inner processes taking place between the powers of imagination, the human intellect and the cosmic one, called the agent intellect. This sort of Kabbalah gravitates around the ideal of devequt, understood as pointing to moderate or extreme types of union with the Godhead. The other vital parts of this model are devices, or techniques, to ensure the attainment of this ideal. Hitbodedut, both as solitude and as mental concentration, hishtawwut or equanimity, and linguistic techniques of combining Hebrew letters or contemplating divine names are integral constituents. Paranormal experiences, like revelations and prophecies are congenital to this type of mystical model, and more consonant with it than to the theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah. The coherence between these concepts and practices rests in an organic continuum between strong mystical techniques and extreme mystical experiences, which include experiences of self-transformation.

The ecstatic model was visible at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century in the writings of some kabbalists, like Isaac ben Shemuel of Acre, Nathan ben Sa'adyah, the author of Sha'arei Tzedeq, Ner 'Elohim, and Sefer ha-Tzeruf, and in the sixteenth century in the writings of Yehudah Albotini, Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570), and Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1542 or 1543–1620). Many of the concepts were disseminated by means of the widespread writings of Cordovero's disciples, though some folios of Abraham Abulafia's Kabbalah were in print as early as 1556. Some of Abulafia's manuscripts were known in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe by both Hasidim and Mitnaggedim.

This model, though formulated in a systematic way by a Spanish Kabbalist, was not accepted by the Spanish kabbalists in the Iberian Peninsula. In Safed, however, Cordovero and his students were positively predisposed toward this type of mysticism. He described the major revelation concerning the messianic mission of Tzevi as the result of a path reminiscent of ecstatic Kabbalah. Abulafia's influence may also be discerned in Hasidism.

The ecstatic approach assumes that the Kabbalist can use language and the canonical texts in order to induce a mystical experience by means of manipulations of elements of language together with other components of the various mystical techniques. This approach is much less concerned with divine inner structures, focusing as it does on the restructuring of the human psyche in order to prepare it for the encounter with the divine. The ecstatic theory of language is less mimetic, and thus less symbolic and theurgic, than the view espoused by the theosophical Kabbalah. While the theosophical-theurgical approach to language assumes the paramount importance of information that is either absorbed by the human mind or transmitted by the soul to the divine, in many cases the ecstatic view of language encourages the effacement of knowledge as part of the opening toward the divine. According to ecstatic Kabbalah, language helps cleanse someone's consciousness by breaking, using a mystical technique, the words of the sacred scripture into nonsemantic units. While the theosophical Kabbalah emphasizes the given, structured aspects of language as manifested in the canonical writings, in ecstatic Kabbalah the deconstruction of the canonical texts, and of ordinary language as well, is an important mystical tool for restructuring the human psyche.

Significant for this model is the antinomian feature of the techniques, which means that according to the various descriptions of his paths the rabbinic rites are not essential for achieving the supreme religious experience. Prophecy is the main purpose of Abulafia's entire kabbalistic project, and he conceived himself to be a prophet. The recurrence, at least in principle, of this topic is visible in a Kabbalist who was also well acquainted with the theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah. Isaac Luria, like his teacher Rabbi Nathan, did not have prophetic claims; his vision of prophecy is quite similar to Abulafia's. The linguistic components of these techniques are of paramount importance. Also conspicuous are the strong individualistic proclivities of this kind of mysticism and the deep influence of philosophy, especially Aristotelianism in the case of Abulafia, and Neoplatonism in the case of his followers. The existence of various elements of the ecstatic model is easily detectable in Neoplatonic philosophy and in Spanish Kabbalah.

The magical-talismanic model.

While the two models of Kabbalah surveyed above are represented in distinct kabbalistic literatures, the magical-talismanic model is found in a variety of writings belonging to those models, and only rarely constitutes a literature of its own. Jewish magic is an old lore, having a variety of forms already in late antiquity. Some parts of it survived in Hebrew and Aramaic texts, some had an impact on Hellenistic magic. No doubt early kabbalists were acquainted with Jewish magical texts and appropriated some of its elements, while others criticized them. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, a distinction between two types of Kabbalah gradually came to the fore: Speculative Kabbalah (Qabbalah 'Iyyunit) and Practical Kabbalah (Qabbalah Ma'asit). In the fifteenth century this distinction appeared several times and in the sixteenth century it became a standard tool for differentiating various types of Kabbalah. The emergence of this distinction may have something to do with the distinction between speculative and practical philosophy, as formulated by Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204).

The greater interest in magical Kabbalah became evident toward the end of the fifteenth century in the writings of both the Spanish and the Italian kabbalists. The extent of the magical influence on Jewish mysticism is an issue that still waits for detailed treatment. There can be no doubt as to the importance of various forms of magic within some of the important forms of Jewish mysticism, starting with the Heikhalot literature. The magical view of the Hebrew language is crucial for most of the forms of magic in Judaism and remained influential in numerous texts, especially in Kabbalah. In the Middle Ages under the influence of philosophical views found among the Arabs, an additional explanation appeared, contending that by cleaving to the spiritual celestial source that rules this world—the universal soul—the mystic, or the philosopher, is able to channel the events in the sublunar world. The operation is a spiritual one and takes place in the supernal world. This understanding of magic uses Neoplatonic elements.

In ancient Hellenistic magic, and in Arabic and Jewish medieval magic, the dominant view asserted is that it is possible to attract downward the spiritual forces of the celestial bodies. These spiritual forces—named pneumata in Greek, Ruhaniyyat in Arabic, and Ruhaniyyut in Hebrew—were conceived as being able to be attracted and captured by special types of objects and rituals, whose natures are consonant to features of corresponding celestial bodies.

In fifteenth-century Kabbalah the use of the Hebrew language as a technique to draw down the spiritual force became explicit, and it was increasingly assumed that each and every sefirah had a spiritual force of its own. Thus, the astrological structure of this model was projected onto the "higher" theosophical structure, thereby diminishing the potential critiques that a strong astrological stand could provoke. While not totally obliterating the astral meaning of the term ruhaniyyut, kabbalists attributed to the sefirotic realm a structure, which they adopted from astrological thought: on high, a distinction should be made between the more material and the spiritual aspects of reality. It is possible to detect some translations of features of the astral bodies to the corresponding divine powers, the sefirot.

While the Arab astrologists differentiated between haikhalat and ruhaniyyat, the kabbalists introduced this distinction in the realm of the intradivine: the sefirot have an external aspect, the vessels named kelim and the more inner component, the spirituality of each sefirah. Though this division also served other theological goals, the terms used by Yohanan Alemanno (1433–c. 1504) and Moses Cordovero in this context betray their sources. Especially important is the emergence of the term ruhaniyyot ha-Sefirot, the spiritual forces of the sefirot. This phrase still maintains the concept of a multiplicity in the spiritual world: each sefirah possesses a distinct inner power that reflects the specific quality of the respective divine power. This "elevation" of the term ruhaniyyutm to the rank of divine realm did not supercede the magical use of the term in the writings of those kabbalists who adopted this projection.

While accepted by some kabbalists, the magical-talismanic model was changed in two major points: the theological, actually the theosophical plane, supplanted the celestial-astrological one, whereas the magical practices were substituted, to a great degree, by the Jewish rites and especially by the ritualistic use of the Hebrew language in prayer and in study. This pivotal change took place in a conspicuous way in the writings of Alemanno, S. Alqabetz, and Cordovero. It was part of an attempt to offer an explanation of the efficacy of the commandments in addition to, or different from, the more common theurgical rationales recurrent in the kabbalistic literature.

In adopting the Jewish ritual for the sake of magical attainments, or by interpreting these rites as magically effective, the more difficult philosophical aspects of magic, as an operation performed by acts that are not part of regular behavior, were attenuated to a great extent. The material and spiritual attainments are drawn down by fulfilling the divine will, and not by an attempt to short-circuit the order of nature, or by forcing the divine will. In many cases the term ruhaniyyut preserves overtones from its magical sources, while in many other instances, both in Cordoverian Kabbalah and Hasidism, this term designates the ideal, spiritual realm, without maintaining any of the astral-magical meanings.

The essence of Kabbalah involves both the theosophical core, the nature of the sefirot and their luminous manifestations (the theoretical Kabbalah), and the experimental factor, the visualization of the colors, which is the essential component of the mystical intention during prayer. As in descriptions stemming from Nahmanides's (1194–c. 1270) school, where the supernal realm and the commandments are mentioned altogether, Kabbalah is presented as a synthesis between theosophical and theurgical elements. The culmination of the kabbalistic lore and practice, as envisioned in one of the most influential treatises in its history, assumes that a mystical element is essential, in addition to the knowledge of the map of the divine world.

The magical brand of Kabbalah remained part and parcel of this lore. Nevertheless there are important cases in which kabbalists rejected, or minimized, the importance of the magical aspects of their lore. Astral magic is paramount in the writings of Alemanno and of Cordovero. The astral spiritualities were projected in the intradivine realm and were presented using magical categories. The basic technique in this type of magic is the drawing down of divine powers, or the overflow of the sefirot, in accordance with the needs of the magician.

Cordovero was aware of the affinity of his conception to that of astral magic and considered the knowledge of the preparation of amulets or talismans as a revealed gnosis, which serves as an introduction to the knowledge of the Kabbalah. His reluctance to acknowledge the conspicuous affinity of his Kabbalah with a certain type of magic is understandable but it does not detract from the profound similarity and the historical filiation of his Kabbalah to magic. Like Alemanno, Cordovero did not intend to disrupt the natural order by appealing to demonic forces, which could destroy the natural order. Instead he proposed a type of activity that complemented natural activity by adding a dimension of praxis based on laws already in existence but hidden from the eyes of the uninformed. The kabbalistic activity was supernatural not because it intruded into the regular course of events but because its orderliness was superior.

According to other texts, inducing the supernal influx upon the righteous by the combination of letters of the divine names is similar to causing the descent of the overflow of the sefirot by employing the color technique. Whereas the names can be conceived as static talismans, there are instances in which there is a dynamic process that induces the spiritual force from above, and it is a dynamic descent that is incited by a combination of letters. The talismanic implications of Abulafia's techniques were enhanced by some of his disciples, who vigorously introduced the talismanic view of language. Thereby, the human body was conceived as the locus where the divine influx is received and becomes a vessel of the descending influx. It is the mystical-magical technique that may induce an experience of the divine, present in and working through the human body.

A certain shift from the theurgical ideal toward a more magical view, represented by the ideal of drawing upon someone the divine efflux, is evident. As in the case of the acculturation of the hermetic type of magic into the Jewish ritual, the Kabbalist performing the practice of concentration and pronunciation of the combinations of letters is presented as a righteous—that is, as an ideal—religious type. Though not part of the regular ritual, the above technique is nevertheless considered to be a licit practice as it is attributed to an ancient source, and the practitioner is described as a righteous man. An important development taking place in Cordovero's thought that had deep repercussions later is the vision of the human righteous, the Tzaddiq, as functioning in a manner reminiscent of the ninth sefirah, Yessod, transmitting the influx it receives from the higher to the lower parts of the sefirotic realms. The influx is received from the sefirotic realm, to which the righteous cleaves, and is transmitted then to others.

In the magical model the world depends upon the higher powers, the spiritual force attracted on the low by the very body of the Tzaddiqim and their religious acts as well as the secrets of the Torah. It is a magical universe that is described by Cordovero: the Tzaddiq is not only able to change the earthly realm but is also conceived as governing the celestial world. By the dint of the divine soul that dwells in man, the righteous rules over the world because of his cleaving to the world of emanation. This expansion of divine influx depends on the religious behavior, which is instrumental in attracting the "light of the world of emanation" onto all the worlds. Cordovero distinguishes between this type of influence on the world—for him a type of natural magic similar to the view of his Renaissance contemporaries in Italy—which is drastically different from a more radical form of Jewish magic that operates by the virtue of the divine names, and which should be avoided as much as possible.

The drawing down consists of two stages: the intradivine, from the peak to the last sefirah, Malkhut, a stage that can be designated as a theurgical act, and drawing the influx from the last sefirah toward the lower entities, which can be called magic. What is significant is the fact that a ritualistic term and its performance as a ritual act are involved in the process of attracting spirituality downward. The use of the term hamshakhah reflects a magical aspect, which may be a return to a more ancient layer of thought. Cordovero inherited a tradition from a long series of kabbalists who connected two topics: the concept and practice of blessing, berakhah, and the drawing down, hamshakhah.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxKabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah, Differences And Overlaps, Impact Of Kabbalah, Bibliography