Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 20, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2011
Hitbodedut, Theurgia and the Modern Magus
Hermetic qabalists, inheriting a long tradition from Renaissance Christian cabala, have utilized various elements of the Jewish mystical tradition for over a hundred years. This has included ideas pertaining to the sefirot, the paths on the Tree of Life, divine hierarchies and more. One element that has rarely found its way into Hermetic practice, however, is that of hitbodedut, an ecstatic kabbalistic meditational practice. Such a loss has been to the detriment of modern magico-spiritual practice.The purpose of this paper is four-fold. First, it will discuss the history and methodology of hitbodedut. Second, it will discuss the spiritual practice known as theurgia. Third, the paper will also demonstrate hitbodedut’snumerous similarities to the Neoplatonic spiritual performance of theurgia. Though theurgic practices are now lost to us, hitbodedut is not. Finally, two exercises based loosely on the praxis of R. Abraham Abulafia, the pioneer of hitbodedut, are presented.
The Art of Seclusion
Hitbodedut is the technical name for a type of meditation practiced within Jewish mysticism. The origination of hitbodedut, literally “seclusion,” dates approximately to the 13th century CE. Though it likely began in the prophetic and ecstatic kabbalistic school of R. Abraham Abulafia, hitbodedut contains several similarities pertaining to the older, Talmudic period merkavah mysticism. Hitbodedut featured prominently amongst many important kabbalists. Included amongst those employing this practice are Abulfaia’s student R. Joseph Gikatilla, R. Moses de Leon, R. Moses Cordovero, R. Isaac Luria and R. Chaim Vital. Though largely lost in modern magical practice, various forms of hitbodedut are still in use today by Jewish kabbalists.
Though “seclusion” is the literal meaning of hitbodedut, the idea of seclusion must be considered within the social context of medieval Judaism, dominated as it was by halakhic law that saw Judaism, and Jewish spirituality, as primarily attainable within and through communal life. So, unlike many Christian and Sufi contemporaries, the medieval kabbalist did not, perhaps could not, leave ordinary Jewish life for the isolated or monastic life of other medieval mystics. Instead, the ecstatic kabbalist, typically a trained rabbi, had to live a Jewish life within his community while simultaneously taking up practices not supported by halakhah.
What did the kabbalists mean by hitbodedut, who continued to use this form of meditation in similar ways through the 16th century? Noted kabbalist R. Aryeh Kaplan writes of internal and external hitbodedut, drawing on the writings of R. Abraham Maimonides, son of the author of The Guide for the Perplexed, whichhas influenced much of Judaism, including the kabbalists, since the middle ages. External seclusion here simply means physical seclusion, such as would be used for meditation, though again not seclusion from society at large. Internal seclusion, however, refers to the isolating of the soul from external perceptions and possibly from sin as well.
Scholar of ecstatic kabbalah, Dr. Moshe Idel states that during the time of Abulafia and his immediate successors hitbodedut referred to well defined mystical techniques and had the connotative meaning of “concentrated thought.” Specifically, it refers to techniques of combining Hebrew letters,  and especially the divine Names, for meditative and esoteric purposes. Letters could be combined mentally, verbally and/or through writing, along with specific patterns of breathing. Though Kaplan’s definition of hitbodedut is in no way incongruous with Idel’s, Idel’s detailed analysis of the practice incorporates Kaplan’s and more.
Hitbodedut may be a foreign concept to many of today’s ceremonial magicians. For some, even meditational techniques beyond imagining a point in the mind’s eye or various astrological sigils might be unheard of. This appears to be partially due to today’s focus on so-called “theosophical” kabbalah; i.e. the kabbalah of the sefirot. Though for Abulafia the sefirotic system was secondary, later kabbalists, including his direct student, R. Joseph Gikatilla, would combine elements of both. Following a more Neoplatonic and theurgic course, these post-Abulafian kabbalists nevertheless engaged in hitbodedut. For these mystics, kabbalistic meditation was not an adjunct to other aspects of kabbalah, but an important mode of engagement with the divine.
As mentioned, the primary technique of this form of Jewish meditation consists of “combining letters.” Here, of course, letters refers specifically to those of the Jewish alefbet. Kaplan has suggested that at least one form of this kind of meditation is encoded in the 3rd century proto-kabbalistic text the Sefer Yetzirah in its brief mention of the 231 Gates, suggesting an older core at the heart of the practice. One of Abulafia’s techniques, which will be expanded upon later in this paper, involved the intonation or chanting of letters combined with specific vowel sounds and head motions. Other forms involved the chanting of letter combination: alef-bet, alef-gimel, alef-dalet . . . bet-gimel, bet-dalet, bet-heh, etc., with or without vowel sounds. The combination of the power inherent in the letters, bodily movements and chanting caused an ecstatic experience in the kabbalist, allowing him to commune with the divine in some manner.
The mystical experiences of the kabbalist, however, depended on more than simple technique. Kabbalistic texts such as the famous Zohar, written or transcribed by R. Moses de Leon in the 13th century CE, and the contemporary Sha’are Orah of R. Joseph Gikatilla, continually emphasis an ethical aspect to Jewish mysticism. Here we find halakhah and the fulfillment of mizvot, the 613 commandments rabbinical Judaism has codified from Torah, combined with the idea of kavanah, or mystical/spiritual “intent,” becoming an ethical and mystical necessity.
This idea is perhaps best encapsulated by Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah, the Gates of Light. This compendium of sefirotic symbolism not only provides technical descriptions of the divine hypostases, but also describes their essences and moral qualities. One important idea Gikatilla focuses on is the lack of space in the spiritual realm; i.e. there is no distance outside of physical reality; closeness to a spiritual reality must be measured differently. We are told, repeatedly, that the only way to measure spiritual closeness is through identity. In a kind of spiritualized form of James Frazer’s sympathetic magic, the more similar we are to something, the closer we are to it spiritually. To be close to God, we must be like God. In order to do this we must become like the sefirot, which make up the constituent parts of the divine in manifestation.
This ethical aspect of Jewish mystical practice, with its focus on the sefirot, when taken together with its technical aspects forces a reevaluation of Jewish mysticism. Importantly, the typical distinction made between “theosophical” and “ecstatic” kabbalah collapses. Idel suggests the rich imagery given in kabbalistic texts is not merely symbolic but instead represents actual mystical experiences. This is common in mysticism, as pointed out by William Harmless, giving for a chicken/egg loop of beliefs influencing experience and experiences influencing beliefs.
The Theurgia of Iamblichus
The practice of theurgia, “god working,” was founded by Julianus the Chaldean during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It was not, however, Julianus, or his son Julianus the Therugist, who fully developed theurgia.
Iamblichus of Chalcis, born in the middle part of the 3rd century CE, was one of the last great Neoplatonists and founder of the Athenian school of Platonism. Through this school and its subsequent students, the scholarship as well as theurgia of Iamblichus would eventually influence important figures such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Michael Psellus and Marsilio Ficino, the man who would initiate the Neoplatonically themed hermetic revival of the Renaissance.
Taking on the persona of the Egyptian priest Abamon, Iamblichus defended theurgia. Far from being a “manifesto of irrationalism” Iamblichus described theurgia as allowing the practitioner to ascend, as much as possible, to the heights of Mind itself. Herein lay the problem. Like Porphyry, scholars such as Dodds and Idel saw theurgy as little more than a form of sorcery coupled with unintelligible rites and incantations. As a kind of sorcery, theurgy was accused of manipulating the divine, forcing it to do the bidding of the magician; a description of sorcery remarkably similar to how it was defined in Judaism and by the later kabbalists!
Iamblichus’, or rather Abamon’s, defense, though repetitious, was simple and elegant. Theurgia is neither sorcery nor mere magic. Instead, Iamblichus saw it as an answer to mere theology (theologia, Greek: “speaking of god”). Through theurgic practice the theurgos could elevate their mind and soul towards God. In the words of Abamon, concerning invocation:
not, as the name seems immediately to imply, inclining the mind of the gods to humans, but rather, as the truth of things itself desires to teach us, disposing the human mind to participation in the gods, leading it up to the gods, and bringing it into accord with them through harmonious persuasion.
Charges of irrationality are similarly dismissed. The confusion, according to Iamblichus, is in believing the now popular “barbaric words of invocation” are meant to be understood. They are not, or at least not by humans. Iamblichus considered these words to be of the language of the gods, which speak to that part of us that understands said language. That part of us is the immortal soul. Modern accusations of irrationality are thus countered; theurgia isn’t irrational at all, it is arational. The language of the gods and ascent of the soul has nothing to do with human reason.
Further, the intellectual life of the therugos, much like human reason, was ultimately seen as limited. Again, in the words of Iamblichus:
. . . it is not pure thought that unites theurgists to the gods. Indeed, what, then, would hinder those who are theoretical philosophers from enjoying a theurgic union with the gods?
Once more, this does not call for an abandonment of reason, far from it. It does, however, put discursive reasoning in its proper place in the Platonic three-world schema. Though, like Aristotelian evidentialism, it was appropriate for the world of Images in which we live, this kind of thinking was simply irrelevant, if not impossible, when it comes to the world of Forms. Discursive reasoning must end where Forms begin, but once the theurgist returned to the lower levels of cognition, it again took up its rightful place.
Unlike as with hitbodedut, we know very little about Iamblichus’ hieratic or theurgic rituals. We do know that he thought everyone capable of its practice. Not everyone, however, is capable of the same kind of or level of theurgic ritual. These levels are the general masses using material forms of worship, the very rare worshiper who has risen to the level of Nous and engage in an immaterial form of worship and those who are in between, using both material and immaterial worship practices. As we grow spiritually the kinds of practice best for us changes. This is not to say that some practices are better than others, but that some practices are better for certain individuals than other practices.
Hitbodedut as Theurgia
I suggest that hibodedut, especially as practiced by the post-Abulafian kabbalists, is a form of theurgia. The particular combination of praxes, combined with the ecstatic states, exalted levels of consciousness and the progression towards becoming like God (as much as possible), all imply this. However, there is more to this idea to explore. Though the ways in which exalted mental and spiritual levels of consciousness are attained have been discussed, a question sill remains: in what way is this Jewish mystical practice a form of “God working”?
To understand this, a more in depth look at kabbalistic thought is necessary. One of the major themes of Jewish mystical thought since at least the Talmudic period has been the idea of the Shekhinah, the feminine manifestation of the divine. In kabbalistic myth, the Shekhinah goes into exile at the time of the expulsion from Eden. In later revisions of this story, Judaism’s exile from Israel is especially connected with the Shekhinah, who is seen as suffering the same fate as she wanders with the Jewish people.
Through the mystical practice one is able to engage in the process of tikkun, in this instance the rectification or the restoration of the Shekhinah to her proper place. This is not only into the divine realm but also with the Bridegroom, the sefira Tiferet, which serves as the major focus of Zoharic and post-Zoharic kabbalistic thought. The gradual act of tikkun not only rectifies the Shekhinah but all of creation. Its completion heralds, according to some account, the coming of the Moshiach, the messiah. This idea was extensively developed in the Zohar and then brought to its fullest state in the teachings of the great 16th century kabbalist R. Isaac Luria. Luria advocated the practice of hitbodedut, as did his primary student, R. Chiam Vital.
Tikkun and spiritual connection to the Shekhinah, which acts as the gate to the higher sefirot, is the connection between theurgia and hitbodedut. Through tikkun, the kabbalist participates in the demiurgic process of building, or rebuilding, creation as it was intended. This is envisioned as releasing sparks of divinity from the entrapment of matter. Further, the uniting of the Bride and Bridegroom, Shekhinah and Tiferet, not only mimics the eternal coupling of Chokmah and Binah, the divine parents, but also brings the flow of divine blessings fully into manifestation below.
This restorative act can be further compared with Iamblichian theurgia. Neoplatonism understands the creative process to be controlled by Nous, the divine mind. Iamblichus, building on the three-world Platonic schema, discusses three Demiurges, each of which oversees the development of its level of reality while receiving the influx of divine force from the Demiurge above. The lowest in the Demiurgic triad is the one relating to the sublunar world, or physical creation, the kabbalistic equivalent of which would be the Shekhinah.
Just as the work of the Demiurge is an ongoing process, the ultimate creative act within kabbalistic thought is also ongoing. From a kabbalistic perspective, tikkun must be considered part of creation. The fall of the Shekhinah cannot be seen as accidental and creation is not complete until she is restored to her proper place, coupled face to face with Tiferet. Thus, by engaging in tikkun through hitbodedut, one participates in a kind of demiurgy; a continuation of the creative process. But Iamblichian theurgia is not simply a creative activity. It also affects the raising of the soul towards Nous. The use of hitbodedut to ascend through the sefirot has already been mentioned. However, the restoration of the Shekhinah and her coupling with Tiferet also reflects this raising upwards. There is a direct correlation between the sefirot and the idea of the five-fold soul in kabbalistic thought.
Metaphorically, the successful raising of the Shekhinah is simultaneously the raising of the lower soul, the nefesh. Just as the Shekhinah unites with and is perfected by Tiferet, the nefesh becomes perfected by the ruach, the soul’s equivalent to Tiferet. In turn, both of these come under the sway of the dyad of neschamah-chiah, equivalent to Binah-Chokmah. Just as for Iamblichus, who holds that the human soul/mind never fully rises to the level of Nous, the same is true in much kabbalistic thought. Though the neschamah and chiah are parts of the soul, they are, to varying degrees, hidden; human consciousness does not touch them.
One last question remains. Iamblichus describes his theurgia as worship of the highest form, the type that brings the human to the gods. If theurgia is worship, can we consider hitbodedut, a form of meditation or contemplation, a variety of theurgia? This may, of course, depend on how one defines “worship.” I think, given the ritual nature of Jewish worship, hitbodedut, as a contemplation of the divine names that simultaneously raises the mystic to divine levels while manifesting deific glory more fully in creation, can indeed be called a species of mystical worship. But what does this have to do with the practices of today’s magus?
Modern Theurgico-Kabbalistic Practices
Developing a hitbodedut practice for modern magicians poses some challenges. Chief amongst these is the fact that not all practitioners have any interest in spirituality as discussed above. Alas, the practice of hitbodedut, as with the practice of theurgia in general, leads towards such ends. What follows are two rituals of hitbodedut. Both will share some similarities with exercises such as the Golden Dawn’s Middle Pillar and the Aurum Solis’ Rousing of the Citadels. Please note, however, that both of the following exercises are very basic; they include vocalized vowel-consonant chanting but not the silent chanting or rhythmic breathing required by Abulafia or Cordovero.
The first ritual is primarily for the purpose of familiarizing one’s self with this kind of ritual. This form of hitbodedut involves the use of head movements that will likely be unfamiliar to the reader. The sensations brought about by steady practice are also fairly different from those experienced in either the Middle Pillar (MP) or Rousing of the Citadels (RC); dizziness is to be expected. This ritual involves the chanting or intonation of the Hebrew vowel sounds associated with the Pillar of Mildness on the Tree of Life.
The second more complex ritual employs the divine names of the Pillar of Mildness, and will so be more like the MP or RC. Building upon the first exercise, the second involves combining vowel and letter combinations for each divine name. While this exercise can be used simply to raise energy for magical practice, that is only a side benefit. Through repeated practice, especially with proper kavanah,contemplating on the divine names will bring the theurgist closer to the sefirotic essences they embody.
Both of these rituals have different levels of practice, each more complex than the last. The more complex rituals, however, are also able to bring the theurgist more deeply into the ecstatic states they are designed to bring about. The chant patterns for the more complex ritual forms are included in the appendices below.
Once proficient in the basics of hitbodedut the magician can make modifications as necessary. For instance, there are vowels associated with each of the ten sefirot, so a single divine name could be explored via specific sefirot, or a given pillar of the Tree of Life. Specific names could be invoked alone, enabling the theurgist to engage with a single power. Abulafia’s school originally used this form of meditation as a gateway to prophecy. As a final example, at the root of hitbodedut is, ultimately, ma’aseh merkavah, the work of the chariot. Hitbodedut could thus be employed in order to gain this vision.
Practice One: Vowel Chanting
Though Biblical Hebrew had no vowels in its written form, this is not true of modern Hebrew, which has over a dozen. Different forms of hitbodedut have utilized different vowels as well as different head motions for those vowels. The following five vowels are used in Abulafian-styled practice:
This practice of vowel chanting combines the intonation of the five vowels and head movements. Each vowel is intoned or chanted much as names are “vibrated” in many modern ceremonial magical practices. Vowels should be chanted using a full breath. As each vowel is sounded an accompanying head movement is made. The movement begins with head facing forward, turning fully in the appropriate direction and ends when the head is back to center. This is one movement. Each movement is done on a single breath.
It is important that all head movements are natural. Do not strain your neck as you turn your head. The spheres of light should be seen in the centerline of your body. If you prefer, you may visualize each sphere according to its sefirotic color. The following shows more traditional colors, but you may use whichever colors you may prefer:
Practice Two: Opening the Pillar of Mildness
This second ritual builds upon the first. Again vowels will be chanted, but this time they will accompany the consonantal sounds of divine names. The divine names found in Jewish kabbalah are frequently slightly different from those within its hermetic counterpart. The following chart shows the divine names for the Pillar of Mildness.
In this form of the Opening of the Pillar of Mildness, each letter of each name is coupled with the vowel appropriate to the sefirah in question. For instance, when intoning the letters of Eheieh, each letter is chanting with the cholem vowel. If a fuller experience with each name is desired, a letter could be chanted with each vowel, thus activating the five kabbalistic worlds, before moving onto the next letter of the name.
The kabbalistic practice known as hitbodedut has been continually employed by Jewish mystics for over 800 years. Used to attain prophecy, union with God, divine visions, an image of the Merkavah, the attainment of tikkun and more it is an essential practice that has become lost outside of its Jewish context. This paper has demonstrated a practical link between hitbodedut and Neoplatonic theurgia. While more could be said concerning either of these, such as their ability to “cause” miracles, enough has been said about the usefulness of hitbodedut to the modern theurgic magus. As with all such spiritual practices, the full benefits of hitbodedut can only be discovered by engaging with it fully.
Appendix A – The Vowel System of R. Moses Cordovero
Appendix B – Advanced Chanting Patterns for the Opening of the Pillar of Mildness
1. Moses Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, (Albandy, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 119; R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, “Mystical and Magical Contemplation: The Kabbalists in Sixtheenth-Century Safed,” History of Religions 1,1 (1961): 18.
8. Many scholars have focused on hitbodedut as a being technique driven, i.e. correct practice always guarantees results. This has ignored the ethical writings of the post-Abulafian kabbalists, taking the mystical, technique texts out of the overall context of kabbalistic thought. C.f. Werblowsky, “Mystical,” 16. Eitan P. Fishbane, “Mystical Contemplation and the Limits of the Mind: The Case of ‘Sheqel ha-Qodesh’,” Jewish Quarterly Review 93,1/2 (2002): 9-10, 11ff.
16. That theurgy is either irrational and/or compelling in nature are common accusations. Porphyry made these some 1800 years ago. They have been repeated ever since. C.f. Gregory Shaw, “Neoplatonic Therugy and Dionysius the Areopagite,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7,4 (1999): 576, 598. See also Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, (Binghamton, NY: Yale University, 1988): 157.
21. Shekhinah is also understood as the sefira of Malkhut, the lowest of the divine hypostases. Compare the myth of the fall of Shekhinah to the Gnostic myth of the exile of Aeon Sophia (Wisdom). It is interesting to note that in pre-kabbalistic Jewish thought, Chokmah (Wisdom) was considered female.
25. Also called the Demiurgos or Demiurge. The Neoplatonic Demiurge, which is a positive figure, should not be confused with the Gnostic Demiurge, who is typically depicted as being either evil or insane.
29. There is debate over this. In some systems Binah is fully transcendent, but in others, such as in the writings of Gikatilla and de Leon, Binah is only partially transcendent. A portion of it is accessible, possibly due to the fact that Binah is considered the upper Shekhinah.. Chokmah, much like the Iamblichian Nous, is completely inaccessible to human consciousness in almost all traditional schools of kabbalah.
31. Importantly, and in line with what has been presented in this paper, the Shekhinah would eventually be understood as the chariot’s rider, turning ma’aseh merkavah into a kind of tikkun. The mystic not only sees the Shekhinah on her chariot, but also engages in restoring her to that position. C.f. Werblowsky, “Mystical,” 18.
33. A more advanced version of this process involves turning the head towards the appropriate direction while inhaling and silently intoning the proper sound. This keeps the head in almost constant motion.
34. Two, more advanced chanting patterns for the Opening of the Pillar of Mildness can be found in appendix b. There are many other possible chanting patterns, especially when silent chants on the inhalations are used. For more on the practice of hitbodedut, see R. David A. Cooper, Ecstatic Kabbalah, (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 2005).