The insights of theosophical Kabbalah can be quite transformative: on the ultimate level, “you” do not exist as a separate self; all is God; the structure of our experience mirrors the structure of the world’s composition. But, as you may have noticed yourself, they aren’t always very practical. There isn’t a how-to guide — how do I experience union with, or adhesion to, God? How do I “get there”?
These are the concerns of the prophetic Kabbalah, kabbalah nevu’it in Hebrew. If theosophical Kabbalah is about describing and understanding the Divine, prophetic Kabbalah is about experiencing it. Prophetic Kabbalah, sometimes called “ecstatic Kabbalah” because it often leads to and works with ecstatic (literally, out of body) experiences, contains detailed instructions for meditative practices, as well as philosophical explanations of what is going on when those practices work.
Not just the trajectory but also the content of prophetic Kabbalah differs from the theosophical. We have tasted a little of the Zohar, with its literary language, complex symbolism, and modes of “seeing deeply” into experience and text. The literature of prophetic Kabbalah has a very different flavor. Obviously, the pedagogical passages differ starkly from the more explicative theosophical texts. But even when prophetic Kabbalah describes the hidden meanings and correspondences among concepts or aspects of creation, it does so in a mode very different from that of theosophical Kabbalah.
Fundamental to prophetic Kabbalah, its core conceptual basis, is the notion of language. Drawing on the Sefer Yetzirah, the ancient Book of Formation which dates back at least to the third century C.E., the prophetic Kabbalah understands language to be the core structure of creation. This concept requires considerable explication, so it will be dealt with on the next page in just a moment. For now, what we should understand is that not only language in its referential, cognitive sense, but also language in its linguistic, grammatical, even physical sense — meaning, the shapes and pronunciations of the Hebrew letters — is the essence of creation itself. For these Kabbalists, a rose by any other name would not be a rose.
Consequently, aspects of language which we might take as coincidental are not at all coincidental to the prophetic Kabbalah. The numerical equivalents of letters (known as gematria), the permutations of letters (“dog” into “god”), even the shapes of the letters all contain secret meanings. And so the prophetic Kabbalah’s methods, by and large, involve working with language: forms of writing which resemble stream-of-consciousness, permuting letters to induce altered states of consciousness, and discerning hidden correspondences among different concepts by means of linguistic operations.
Where we choose to focus in our understanding of prophetic Kabbalah is up to us. For some, the use of language — the Hebrew language specifically — is of paramount importance; it says something about how we conceptualize reality in terms of language, and is redolent of postmodern and linguistic notions which were not advanced until centuries after the Kabbalah flourished. For others, language is merely the tool, and the essence of prophetic Kabbalah is in the ways it cultivates mystical experience. Yes, language is the method, but what’s more important is what the method does: create altered states of consciousness through practices which are meditative in nature. For still others, both the means and the states of consciousness may be secondary to the results, the fruits of all of these practices, which is, essentially, prophecy.
Because I embrace all three of these aspects, especially the last one, I prefer the term “prophetic Kabbalah,” which is derived from the Kabbalists themselves, to “ecstatic Kabbalah.” Calling these practices ecstatic suggests that their main purpose is to create a certain kind of experience. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. It is true that the practices bring about an experience which may be interpreted as “ecstatic” — sometimes, in the accounts of the Kabbalists, it is certainly exactly that. But for the main prophetic Kabbalists, to whom we shall turn in a moment, the real fruits of the practices are not the interesting and perhaps even tempting altered states of consciousness. As in other forms of meditation, the real fruits are the insights that arise in those states. The prophetic Kabbalists believe that by entering these altered states of consciousness, they are in touch with the Divine influx, and accessing what we might call the deeper parts of the Self — but what they call the Active Intellect, flowing from the Divine Itself.
This may seem like a subtle point, but it is important for several reasons. First, it says something critical about the point of mystical practice itself. For many years, I believed the point of meditation/mysticism/etc. was to have the sorts of experiences that you will see described in the pages to come. That would be proof, I thought, and it was the goal of much of my own early attempts at meditation. But in fact, as I learned in my own meditative practice, while the experiences of altered states are nurturing, beautiful, and delightful, and while they are signs that you are doing something right, meditation is a dead end if they’re all that it’s about. Sure, it’s a better high than drugs, but contemplative practice is not supposed to be about getting high, or entering a mind-state which seems preferable to ordinary ones. Contemplation is about a knowing union with the Divine, a clear seeing into what is, and a loving embrace of that reality, in all its difficult detail. The insights which arise in highly concentrated meditation states are precious, and inform our everyday lives, which are usually spent in “ordinary mind.” To suppose that the ecstatic experiences we will read about soon are narcotic escapes from reality is a very destructive error.
Second, bearing in minds the fruits as well as the feel of these practices helps us better understand the relationship of prophetic Kabbalah to theosophical Kabbalah. Because of the way prophetic Kabbalah has been translated and interpreted over the last hundred years, many people suppose that it is entirely comprised of meditation tools and descriptions of altered states. Not so. Actually, the texts of prophetic Kabbalah are redolent with theosophical-seeming statements about the sefirot, or about angels, or any number of other topics. As best as I can tell from my study of these texts, these statements are often the recorded fruits of the mystics’ own experiences. They contain Sefer-Yetzirah-like maps of the universe, gematria-filled correspondences among different concepts and things, and detailed cosmologies. And they are very much aware of the terminology of theosophical Kabbalah. These texts and the theosophical texts we looked at earlier go hand in hand.
This relationship is further borne out by the historical circumstances surrounding the Kabbalah. The most important prophetic Kabbalist, Abraham Abulafia (there is whole a page on him as well), was a contemporary of Joseph Gikatilla and Moshe de Leon in the late 13th century. More than that: he studied with Gikatilla. Later, as Abulafia’s Kabbalah became more widespread, it became included in texts we might consider theosophical in nature, most importantly Cordovero’s Pardes Rimmonim. So, as I seem to say before introducing every “stream” and school within Kabbalah, we should not let these conceptual distinctions confuse us into thinking that they really are separate streams, schools, and communities. Conceptually, yes, it is useful to distinguish these aspects of the Kabbalah. But historically, they are interrelated, interdependent, and in continued dialogue with one another.
Finally, the relative importance of the different streams remains an open question among scholars. Theosophical Kabbalah is surely the best known today, and the most often written about in other texts. Then again, there exists a huge number of prophetic Kabbalistic manuscripts, suggesting that it was at least as widespread. And, of course, there are more practical Kabbalists around in the public, today as before, than of any other type.
Such is the groundwork for the prophetic Kabbalah. But what does it actually say? Where did it come from? And how can you experience it yourself? We will address these questions in the pages to come.