Abraham Abulafia: A Key Out of the Palestinian/Israeli Labryinth

Dystinct Art Magazine, New York, January, 2004

History is meaningful only as long as it informs our current understanding of the world.  Unfortunately, all too often, the "history" that influences the political and social spectrums is negative; ancient wrongs and age-old oppression, selectively highlighted, that informs our view of the current relations between peoples.

This is all too true with the current situation in the Middle East.  There, centuries' old pain mixes easily with fresh wounds, sloshing into a virulent mix of hatred, anger and spiraling violence.  However, if we listen closely, there are whispers of another history, just as true and perhaps even more important than the obvious one that so enflames the current relations between Muslims and Jews.  In this virtually unknown story, Jewish and Muslim holy men worked and studied together, gathering in small groups not for yet another round of tense negotiations, but to take tea and share what is most beautiful about their religions.  Ultimately, over the course of nearly five centuries during medieval times, this bond grew so strong and loving that it completely changed the direction of the Jewish religion - turning Jewish mysticism irrevocably towards the light of their Islamic brethren, the Sufis.

Indeed, if we tease the strands of contemporary Jewish mysticism, tugging on the braid until individual threads emerge, we find that much of its lustrous practice can actually be traced to Sufism, or Islamic mysticism.  Surprising though it may be, a 13th century Jewish Rabbi, Abraham Abulafia (1240-c.1291), was one of many medieval Jews who wove the beauty of Muslim mysticism into the Jewish spiritual quilt, forever changing the face of Jewish practice - and allying Jews and Muslims at their mystical cores in ways that, today, neither would suspect.

To unknot this story, we must travel deep into the past, to a time when the practice of Sufism influenced vast regions of the Middle East, Africa and even Europe -- a gentle tradition of love suffusing the beliefs of Muslim and Jew alike.  In the 13th century, nearly 90% of the world's Jewry lived under Muslim rule, and Jews read and wrote in Arabic, worked hand in hand with Muslims at commercial projects and even studied the Koran in the madrassas, or schools of the day.  Once they became introduced to the great Sufi thinkers, many of the more mystically inclined Jewish thinkers responded to the deep piety of their spiritual cousins and voraciously ingested their ideas. 

The gentle melding of Sufism with Judaism produced a period of tremendous fertility in the Jewish religion - some have even claimed it to be the most productive and creative epoch in the entire history of Jewish mysticism. [1]  By the time that the Sufi influence was completely digested, a few hundred years after Abraham Abulafia's death, the face of Jewish worship itself had been forever changed, with reverberations reaching deep into the inner sanctum of the Jewish Kabbalah and down to the Baal Shem Tov's Hasidism.  Even today, contemporary Jewish adepts in Jerusalem, Europe and even Brooklyn worship in ways that are more reminiscent of Sufism than earlier, pre-medieval Jewish spirituality.

Rabbi Abraham Abulafia was one of the first Jews to turn to the Sufis for inspiration.  A mystic given to white robes and self-induced catatonic states, he spent nearly his entire adulthood on the run, traveling from Spain to the Holy Land, to Greece, Italy and finally to the Vatican, where one of his many visions had told him to seek an audience with the Pope.  As often as not, his exits were anything but voluntary - hurried affairs undertaken by the cover of darkness.  For instance, when apprised of the strange Jew's desire to meet with him, the Pope immediately had Abulafia thrown into jail, the death sentence hanging over his head.  He was saved only when the Pope unexpectedly died; Abulafia was freed in the ensuing chaos. 

Despite his bizarre itinerary, Abulafia had a profound and lasting impact on the development of Jewish mysticism from the 13th century down to our own day.  He was read and quoted by ensuing mystics from his contemporaries on through to the 18th century Baal Shem Tov and his followers.  Later generations, of course, had no knowledge of Abulafia's Islamic influences — they were simply attracted to his intense personal mystical vision.  Ultimately, he helped to change the course of Jewish mysticism by basing much of his interpretation of Jewish spirituality on his absorption of Islamic mystical ideas. 

Sufism, the spiritual soul of Islam, is an open-minded belief system positing that all the great religions and mystical traditions share the same essential truths. While subsumed in the tenets of the Muslim faith, Sufis view their parent religion as a vessel to the hold their mysticism -- a decidedly non-traditional worship that leads to a deeper understanding of the true reality of life and the world.  Following an ecstatic path that often uses the language of lovers and poets instead of ascetics, Sufi masters attempt to find spiritual union with God - and then "return" to the everyday world to enlighten and help others.  The tariqa, or Sufi path, defines the specific methods and practices that the Sufi follows to attain enlightenment.

Abraham Abulafia borrowed liberally from these spiritual masters.  But rather than just becoming a Jewish heretic, or even convert to another religion, he wrapped Sufi ideas, beliefs and even rites into his own interpretation of Jewish practice.  For instance, he embraced the fundamental tenets of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides' theology, even becoming a well-known teacher of the master's work.  However, he liberally ladled Sufi interpretation on top of Maimonides' ideas.  Building on Moses' ideas of the "Active Intellect" - or the reaching out to God through prayer - Abulafia went a step further.  He became one of the first Jewish mystics to believe in the ability of human beings to dissolve their ego into an experience of the divine, uniting with its source through the use of various mystical techniques.

The idea of a complete union with God through meditation was in direct contradiction to Maimonides' true beliefs  -- and with thousands of years of Jewish religious history.  It was, however, right in line with the thinking of his contemporary Sufi practitioners.  As such, Abraham's path to this divine union was based in the Sufi Way.   For instance, to capture the idea of this transformation from man's intellect to that of God, Abulafia expressed his idea in the Sufi shath, or ecstatic utterance, "I am reality," implying that the personal ego and that of God were the same thing.  The idea of commingling the human ego with that of God was clearly blasphemous -- and religious traditionalists from both religions reacted strongly against this wild claim. 

The Sufi originator of this saying, the ninth century Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, was condemned as a martyr for this statement and hung by Muslim authorities.  Abulafia didn't fare quite as badly, though his bizarre, Sufi-inspired proclamations did attract the attention of one of the leading Rabbinical authorities of his times, Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Ibn Adret, who promptly excommunicated him, forcing him into exile on a small island off the coast of Sicily, where he died around 1291. 

In addition to Abulafia's belief in the ability to commune completely with the Godhead, he borrowed much of what is today commonly thought of as particularly Jewish mystical prayer from the Muslim mystics.  The so-called  "Science of the Letters," in which the letters of the prayers themselves - and most importantly those of the Divine Name, YHVH in Hebrew - were imbued with intense mystical meaning that led to divine union with God, was imported by Abulafia wholesale from his Islamic spiritual brethren.  In fact, this system, based in a complicated series of chants, breathing techniques, movements of the head, ritual ablutions and special clothing, had very little to do with the traditional laws of Judaism.  Many of these same ideas and rites, however, could be found in the Sufi practice of that time.

It might be noted that this "Abulafian prayer" is taught and practiced today in meditation clinics and mystical conclaves throughout the United States and beyond.  Weekend prayer meetings from Philadelphia to Beth El in Jerusalem concentrate on Abulafia's "unusual" prayer system - allowing the contemporary Jewish seeker to slough off, if only for a short time, the cares of our overwrought society and commune with a quieter presence.  It is a safe bet that none of these contemporary Jewish practitioners know that they are in fact following a Sufi prayer method!

Along with the science of the letters, based on Sufi precursors, came the Sufi ideal of hitbodedutHitbodedut had two meanings for Abulafia, both of which were new to Judaism.  On one hand, it represented the necessary mental concentration required to achieve divine union with God; as well, it implied the solitary nature of this activity and the necessity to separate oneself from a community of worshipers to pray.   This concept of solitary retreat, when combined with the combination of the letters, bears a striking resemblance to the dikr ceremony, or Sufi ceremony for the remembrance of God, that the Islamic mystics undertook under the direction of their teacher, or sheikh. Abulafia even uses the Muslim word "sheikh" when describing the ritual! 

It might also be noted how very contrary was this idea to traditional Jewish worship.  After all, since the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E., there had been nothing more important than the gathering of the Jewish community in prayer, to show that despite the absence of the physical Temple Mount, the spirit of the Temple was still extant in Jewish ritual.  Abulafia's Sufi-inspired suggestion that Jews separate themselves from their community to pray bordered on heresy.

Abulafia imported the emotional, ecstatic aspects of Sufism into Kabbalistic practice, as well - features that had been missing from the rationalistic Jewish attitudes towards prayer for the prior 1000 years.  For instance, in addition to describing the Jewish mystical experience with the Sufi shath, Abulafia borrowed the strongly erotic imagery of mystical union from the Sufis.  Instead of God representing a far-off, highly masculine figure, the Ultimate Force became an object of longing and desire, compounded by years of fruitless preparation (the time of study and prayer) and culminating in kissing, sexual intercourse and even the ejaculation of God's powers into the (now feminine) mystic.  This novel Jewish language, so familiar to Muslim mystics, became common currency for the later Kabbalah and Hasidism, thanks in large part to Abulafia's influence.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Abulafia's Sufi inspiration was that his immediate followers not only knew of it, but also embraced it.  By the end of his lifetime, virtually all Kabbalistic writings coming out of the Holy Land evidenced conspicuous traces of Abulafia's mystical techniques, specifically the Sufic elements. 

As scholar Moshe Idel puts it: "The repercussions of the synthesis (between Sufism and Abulafia's mysticism) for the later development of Jewish mysticism were tremendous: The overemphasis of the importance of mystical union, of hitbodedut, (physical seclusion and/or mental concentration) and the introduction the idea of "equanimity" as having a paramount mystical value, restructured the bosom of Jewish medieval mysticism and overtly affected the peculiar physiognomy of some aspects of the Safedian Kabbalah and, later on, led to the formation of Hasidism as a mystical phenomena." [2]                  

Though little-known, this excommunicated Jewish mystic had a profound effect on the direction of the Jewish religion after the 13th century.  And we can do more than just appreciate his important influence; we can learn from his open-mindedness.  His appreciation and respect for a supposed blood-enemy can teach us an important lesson even now, more than seven centuries after his death.  For if Jewish mystics today are praying in manners that the Sufis have for a thousand years - and, indeed, if much of current Jewish spirituality actually stems from earlier Sufi masters, ingested by a lone, passionate mystic all those years ago -- then how can we truly justify the intense hatred at present, in the cradle of this beautiful mystical symbiosis, the Holy Land? 

Elie Wiesel, the survivor of the German destruction of the Jews during the Second World War and a passionate human rights activist, has said, "I still believe human bridges can be built between the two communities (Jews and Palestinians), through reciprocal visits between students, teachers, musicians, writers, artists, business leaders and journalists." [3] 

Perhaps by sharing this little-known history between Jewish and Muslim mystics, we can begin to reopen paths of respect and love between Jews and Muslims that have scarred over recently, leading to the horrible fratricide between these two mystical cousins.



[1] Books of Contemplation, Verman, pg. 8

[2] Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, Idel, pg. Viii

[3] New York Times, January 24, 2001