Sunday, May 15, 2011

Meditation and Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan

The following has been added to the Bibliography/Book Review article on Aryeh Kaplan:

I have also now read Meditation and Kabbalah. It picks up where Meditation and the Bible leaves off, venturing into other sources of Jewish meditative practices over the centuries. It opens with an overview and then presents a review of various sources, beginning with the Talmudists, the Zohar and The Hekhalot. There is a lengthy section on Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, who was born in 13th century Spain, documenting his approach and the extensive influence he had on his contemporaries and in subsequent years after his passing, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. Abulafia wrote extensively and in great detail, to the dismay of many others opposed to him and his actions, some because they believed such matters were heresy, and others who believed such matters should remain the province of secret groups. Abulafia’s main focus was on letter permutations of Bible phrases and words, utilizing a method of actually writing them, as well as intoning them, in order to reach revelatory states. He also engaged in elaborate breathing exercises and body movements, particularly with movements of the head. Kaplan affords Abulafia great respect, while acknowledging the many controversies surrounding him and his teachings, particularly certain claims that could easily be interpreted that Abulafia believed himself to be the Messiah, and a rather bizarre and delusional effort to attempt to convert the Pope at that time to Judaism.

The next section reviews “Other Early Schools”. It begins with the significance of the school of Provence, France in the late 1100’s, as the first source putting kabalistic teachings into writing that had previously been passed on secretly in verbal form only. It is considered the source of the written Bahir, a precursor to the Zohar, which appeared later. It then reviews the work of Rabbi Joseph Gikatalia of Spain who lived in the 1200’s and 1300’s, and his contribution describing meditating on the sephirot and the divine names associated with them. Next is a chapter on Rabbi Isaac of Acco, who lived in the Mideast and then moved to Italy. He was a contemporary of the Ramban, Abulafia, and Moses de Leon (redactor of the Zohar). This is followed by a chapter about the publication of the Zohar and the issues that still remain concerning whether Moses de Leon was merely a redactor/conveyer of an earlier text dating back to Shimon bar Yochai from the second century, or whether he authored it himself, via divine revelation or merely his own imagination. The section on “Other Early Schools” concludes with chapters on “Occult Schools” which overlapped practical kabala/debased magic, with meditation, and on the 16th Century Rabbi Joseph Tzayach who lived mostly in Jerusalem and Damascus.

Following this is a section on the development of kabalistic centers in Safed and Jerusalem in Israel and a review of the early sages that established it. These were mostly rabbis from Portugal and Spain who immigrated to Safed following their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 as part of the Inquisition, and those that followed them into the early and mid 1500’s. These include Moshe Cordevero (the Ramak), Joseph Caro, Jacob Berab, Joseph Saragossi, Joseph Taitatzak, David abu Zimra (the Radbaz), Judah Albontini, Joseph Tzayach, Betzalel Ashkenazi, Shlomo AlKabatz.

There is also mention of a mysterious figure who apparently was not a rabbi, described as “a cryptical messianic figure from Kheybar on the Arabian peninsula” by the name of David Reuveni. He influenced a Rabbi Shlomo Molcho, who had remained in Portugal as a Marrano convert to Catholicism, but who had secretly continued to study Judaism. Reuveni persuaded Molcho to re-embrace Judaism and flee from Portugal. Molcho later developed a meditative technique whereby he could contact a Maggid, “a kind of angelic spokesman”, and taught this technique to other noted Rabbis. Molcho’s ego eventually got the best of him, and thinking that his charisma could win over the King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he ended up being burned at the stake for heresy. The book includes a very odd drawing of what is represented as his autograph.

Rabbi Joseph Caro had been one who learned the technique for contacting a Maggid from Molcho, and Caro actually wrote a book containing the revelations of this Maggid, Maggid Mesharim, an excerpt of which is reproduced. From this excerpt: “This is the mystery of Unity, through which a person literally unifies himself with his Creator. The soul attaches itself to Him, and becomes one with Him, so that the body literally becomes a dwelling place of the Divine Presence.”

Included are excerpts from a work by the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordevero), Pardes Rimonim, describing, among other things, a system of meditation utilizing the consonants of the Tetragrammaton with different vowels and colors all associated with the different Sephirot. From this excerpt: “If one is pure and upright in deed, and if he grasps the cords of love, which exist in the holy roots of his soul, he can ascend to every level in all the Universes.”

There are two short sections devoted to Rabbi Chaim Vital, who lived in the mid-1500’s and early 1600’s, mostly in Safed and Damascus. This was a time of much growth in kabalistic communities like Safed, spurred by the first printing of the Zohar, making it more easily accessible to more people. Kaplan notes that Vital is usually discussed in the context of being the chief disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria (The Ari), a giant in kabalistic thought and innovation. Vital is credited with recording many volumes describing the teachings and techniques of Luria, preserving them for future reference, as Luria himself wrote very little. However, Kaplan notes that Vital was actually only under Luria’s tutelage for less than two years, and lived on many years after Luria’s passing, during which time he became more distanced from Luria’s teachings and influence, and immersed himself in earlier sources. Kaplan notes that Vital wrote “one of the most remarkable books about the meditative Kabbalah, and one of the very few ever printed…Shaarey Kedushah (Gates of Holiness). Although the author states that he learned these methods from the Ari, much of the material comes from older sources. Indeed, the unpublished Fourth Section of this book consists almost entirely of quotations from older texts…[it] stands alone as being the only textbook of Kabbalistic meditation ever printed.” The unpublished Fourth Section describes specific methods of meditation, many of which Vital gleaned from earlier sources, including Abulafia, Joseph Caro, and others, which he confirms by personal experience as being valid and effective. It also contains much detail about extensive preparatory steps for meditation, including complying with all 248 positive commandments and immersing in a mikvah. One significant method is called Yechudim (Unifications), and involves imaging and permutating biblical Hebrew letters. Another method involves mantra-like repetition of selected phrases from the Mishna.

This is followed by a lengthy section on Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), known as The Ari (The Lion). He is generally acknowledged as having more influence on kabbalistic thought and practice than any other single person. As noted above, Rabbi Chaim Vital was his chief disciple, and was responsible for preserving thousands of pages in multiple volumes of The Ari’s teachings, as virtually nothing exists written directly by The Ari. Although born in Jerusalem, he spent most of his years in Egypt, where his mother moved after his father’s death to live with her brother. Luria was recognized early on as a spiritual child prodigy, and studied and mastered the Talmud at an early age under the tutelage of various leading sages of that time living in Egypt. By age seventeen, he had started studying the Zohar and meditating intensively and extensively. Only two years before his death at age 38, he moved to Safed due to guidance received in a meditation, where he succeeded the Ramak as leader of the Safed school of kabalah.

Kaplan states that it is a very difficult undertaking to try to summarize the expanse of Luria’s teachings and do them any justice. However, Kaplan nevertheless attempts such an undertaking. He says Luria builds upon, clarifies, and expands upon some basic concepts of the Zohar: The Ten Sefirot, The Partzufim, the Adam Kadmon, the Four Universes, the Five levels of the Soul, and devises meditative practices that incorporate them.
Another significant Lurianic concept is that of the “shattering of the vessels”, and the rectification/repairing of the fragments of the shattered vessels (tikkun), which I will not attempt to summarize here.

Kaplan describes meditative prayer exercises developed by Luria called “Kavonot” that were applied to all sorts of daily activities, rendering them sacred. Next is a description of more internal meditative practices called “Yichudim” (from the word, “yichud”, meaning uniting, and thus yichudim means “unifications”, quite similar to the root meaning of the word “yoga”). Yichudim are a number of complex meditative practices utilizing permutations and combinations of various divine names, particularly the Tetragrammaton, Adonai, Elohim and Ehyeh. Kaplan goes into some detail describing these practices. Of particular note to me as a Jewish yogi are some descriptions that parallel concepts found in yoga: 1. A practice fostering a state with a description similar to the state of yoga nidra (yogic sleep): “You will be worthy of knowing all that you desire and receiving answers to all that you ask. This, however, requires great concentration. You must clear your mind of all thought, and divest your soul from your body.”  2. There are many descriptions involving practices balancing male and female energies. 3. Descriptions of male and female energies related to the right and left nostrils, respectively, corresponding to the pingala and ida in yoga descriptions.

The final section of the book is on The Hasidim. Kaplan provides a quick overview of the history of the Hasidic movement, beginning with the surfacing of the Society of the Nistarim under the leadership of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezar, 1698-1760). Although this intensely secret kabalistic society had existed for many years under many leaders before the Baal Shem Tov, he is credited with initiating the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe by virtue of making these teachings more widespread and revising them so that they would be accessible to the common man, including meditative techniques. A primary focus was transforming prayer into meditation and focusing on elevating through the various kabbalistic worlds through prayer/meditation. Hasidic writings also made reference to Ein/Ayin – Nothingness, although Kaplan warns that it involves the most difficult path of “undirected meditation [which] is one of the most dangerous methods in classical meditation and should not be attempted except under the guidance of a master.” He nevertheless acknowledges that it is “highly significant”.

Kaplan ends this section and the book with a chapter on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810, founder of the Breslov Hasidic lineage). He discusses his recommended method of Hitbodedut/Meditation, which involves bringing forth one’s inner thoughts in silent reflection and conversation with the Divine. 


F Salmo said...

Do you meet weekly to learn and review?

Steve Gold said...

There have been times when we have had regular study sessions, but nothing along those lines right now. Look at the Current Teaching Sessions section on the website for teaching activities. Thank you for your interest.

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