Flavors of Ecstasy: States of Absorption in Islamic and Jewish Contemplative Traditions
1.1. Trait Absorption and Perceptual Decoupling
We believe that “absorption” is best understood as the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and much other spiritual experience in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations. From this perspective, “absorption” is the name of the capacity to become focused on the mind’s object—what humans imagine or see around them—and to allow that focus to increase while diminishing attention to the myriad of everyday distractions that accompany the management of normal life.
1.2. Contemplative States of Absorption
2. Islamic Traditions
2.1. Seclusion (Khalwa)
The instructions are intended to create a secure sensory deprivation environment (no sound or light) which allows the senses to “cease functioning” and, when combined with concentrative effects of the meditative practice of zhikr (the repetition of divine names or Quranic verses) and the banishment of distracting thoughts, the ‘noise’ of the bodily senses and the ordinary mind is eliminated, such that the spirit can then tune in to the signal of “the world of the unseen”. In this way, the “shutting of the external senses” was understood to be crucial to the “opening of the internal senses”, which allowed mystical experience and divine realities to be perceived (Knysh 2000, p. 316).The first is to sit alone in an empty room, facing the qebla with the legs crossed and the hands placed on top of each other. The morid should have made a total ablution, intending it to be like the washing of a corpse, and imagine the room to be his shroud, leaving it only to perform ablution and prayer and fulfill other needs. The room must be small and dark, with a curtain drawn over the door so that no light or sound penetrates. The senses will then cease functioning-seeing, hearing, speaking, and walking-and the spirit, no longer preoccupied with the senses and sensory phenomena, will direct itself to the world of the unseen. Moreover, once the senses have ceased functioning, the misfortunes that assail the spirit through the apertures of the five senses will be effaced by means of zekr and the negation of stray thoughts. The veils that derive from the senses will fall; the spirit will gain familiarity with the unseen; and its familiarity with men will cease.
2.2. The States (ahwal) of Ecstasy (wajd)
the person’s inrush and self-disclosure are equal to his own capacity. No one sees any effect of the ruling property of the inrush over him, but one becomes aware upon seeing him, through a hidden kind of awareness, that something has happened to him, since he has to listen to the inrush in order to take what it has brought him from the Real. His state is like that of the sitting companion who is conversing with you, when another person comes with a command for him from the king. He stops talking to you and listens to what that person is saying. Once he receives the message, he returns to the conversation. In such a case, even if you do not see anything with your eyes, you notice that something has distracted him from you, as if someone were speaking to him. Or he has suddenly begun to think about something, so his senses turn toward it in his imagination, and his eyes and his gaze become dull, even while you are talking to him. You look at him, but your words do not register with him, so you become aware that his inward dimension is thinking about something else, different from what you are busy with. Sometimes the person’s capacity is greater than the inrush, so when it comes to him—while he is conversing with you—you do not become aware. He takes what the inrush casts to him, and he takes from you what you say to him, or he speaks to you.
2.3. Annihilation (fana) and Subsistence (baqa)
A distinction is made here between dhikr where one has to exert a lot of effort to maintain one’s focus and attention and the latter stage where focus has become effortless such that it would actually take effort to break one’s focus on the practice.8 He then continues,Know that it has been revealed to the possessors of insight that remembrance is the best deed. However, it also has three layers, some of which are closer to the core than others. It has a core behind the three layers, and the layers have been given precedence due to their being a way to the core. The first layer is remembrance of the tongue only. The second is remembrance of the heart-if the heart is in need of supervision until it becomes present with remembrance, and if fit were abandoned it would be preoccupied with various thoughts. The third is for remembrance to be established in the heart and to overwhelm it, to the extent that it would require force to turn it away from remembrance to something else-just as, in the second layer, force is needed to establish remembrance and constantly maintain it.
The fourth, which is the core, is for the remembered to be established in the heart, and remembrance to be erased and hidden. This is the core which is sought after, whereby the heart turns its attention neither to remembrance nor to the heart; rather, its entire being is immersed in the remembered. Whenever, in the course of this, the heart becomes aware of turning to remembrance, it is a distracting partition. This state is what the gnostics call ‘self-oblivion’ (fana’), which is for a person to be oblivious to himself to the extent that he does not sense anything from his outer limbs, anything external, or any of the inner fluctuations within him…If, during this, it occurs to him that he is oblivious from himself entirely, then that also is an adulteration and a blemish. Rather, completion is for him to be oblivious to himself and oblivious to oblivion as well, for indeed oblivion of oblivion is the pinnacle of oblivion.(ibid., pp. 69–70)
Indeed you could become immersed in extreme anger by thinking about your enemy, or extreme desire for your lover, to the extent that there is not room in your mind for anything else. You are spoken to, yet you do not understand; someone passes in front of you, yet you do not see him although your eyes are open; a conversation is taking place next to you, yet you do not hear despite there being no deafness in your ears. In this immersion, you are heedless to everything, including the immersion itself; for surely the one who is attentive to immersion has turned away from that which he is immersed in.(ibid., p. 70)
While Toussulis notes that the ultimate goal is “a state of more authentic sobriety”, during the states of ecstasy preceding this “one may find oneself feeling and acting, at times, like one who is mualla (mad in Allah)” though this “is considered to be a sign of immaturity, especially if it is indiscriminately displayed to others who are not adepts in Sufism” (ibid., p. 171).The outward dimension of vocal dhikr involves audibly chanting the names in a windlike manner, thereby raising waves on the surface of the ocean. These waves are hidden thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions, which rise to the surface and empty themselves into the greater motion of the sea. During this period one becomes what some Sufis call an imitative drunkard. Such a one is merely a “possessor of tastings” and his or her ecstasy is sporadic and of short duration. The inner dimension of audible dhikr is one in which one recognizes that one habitually mistakes the surface of these waves with the sea itself. Progressively, the waves sink into the sea; the wind stops and the surface becomes calm. The ocean is gradually revealed as a single body composed of two activities: waves in motion and calmness. Here, as some Sufis put it, one becomes a “possessor of drinking” and is completely overcome by ecstasy.
While many states can be absorptive such that one ‘temporarily ceases to be’ and ‘the apparent world disappears’, as well as being comparable to madness, not all of them alter one’s sense of identity at baseline in an enduring way. Whereas in the earlier states of ecstasy, one is like one who is mualla, here there is actually a risk of inhabiting this state in an ongoing way. In the second stage of baqa, called both the “second separation” (farq al thani) and “the presence of gathering” (hadhrat al-jam), “the student returns to sobriety, yet the one who returns or who is reborn in this way is radically divested of the myth of separate selfhood” though “there is still, however, a vestige of separation” that remains and marks it as an incomplete realization. (ibid., p. 178) The third and final stage of baqa, described and translated as the “integration of gathering” (jam al-jam) consists in the realization “that creation is truly the locus for God to manifest the fullness of His own nature” which results in a condition where “sobriety (sahw), induced through perception of the forms, and intoxication (sukr), induced through the perception of God, alternate in such a way that the integrative state of human being as a servant and deputy gradually ripens” (ibid., p. 180).all the former realizations in the phase of fana—the effacement of actions, attributes, and essence—are powerfully “gathered” (jam) together. As a matter of fact, they are synthesized so intensely that the servant temporarily ceases to be, often falling into a state of total intoxication in which the apparent world disappears…This condition completely alters one’s sense of self-identity in a way Attar has expressed as follows: “I have no news of my coming or passing away—the whole thing happened quicker than a breath; ask no questions of the moth. In the candle flame of his face I have forgotten all the answers.”…one cannot remain in this state for too long for to do so would be to risk becoming “mad in allah” (mualla). Because of this, the malamati guide immediately coaxes his student into the next stage of baqa.(ibid., p. 177)
3. Jewish Traditions
3.1. Concentration (Kavannah)
Elliot Wolfson (1996) elaborates on this “ideal of mental concentration” called kavannah, as “the setting and focusing of the mind on a fixed object and the blocking out of all distracting thoughts” (p. 140). Indeed this ideal state of concentration is correlated with a koved rosh, literally “heaviness of head”10 but in this context perhaps referring to the capacity to direct one’s mind in way that it gravitates towards its object and one’s attention does not easily disengage or ‘float away’. As Wolfson writes, “the worshiper’s concentration must be so intense that nothing—neither king nor serpent—should divert his attention” (p. 140). Here, from a contemplative perspective and interpretation of the passage, prayer is situated in relation to a state of heightened attention and non-distraction such that one wouldn’t notice even if one’s life were in immediate physical danger (snake) or faced with extreme social pressure (king). In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is an elaboration of this ideal and perhaps a window into the kinds of techniques used to engender this concentrated state. Joel Hecker summarizes the passage (JT Berachot 2:4) when he describes how the Rabbinic sages used different methods towards this end: “Rabbi Hiyya meditated on the Persian political hierarchy to help him concentrate. Rabbi Samuel counted birds. And Rabbi Bun bar Hiyya counted rows of bricks” and explains that these “latter approaches are strikingly similar to the simple act of counting one’s breaths as a means to calm the mind, a method used in mindfulness meditation as practiced today.” (Hecker n.d.)One may only stand and begin to pray from a state of ‘heaviness of head’ (koved rosh). The early pietists would wait one hour and then pray, so that they would focus (l’kaven) their hearts toward ‘The Place’. Even if the king greets him, he should not respond to him; and even if a snake is wrapped on his heel, he should not interrupt.(Berachot 5:1; translation mine)
Maimonides admonishes his pupils to first “empty your mind of everything” while reciting daily prayers. After a number of years practicing and perfecting this, the aspirant should also clear their mind while reading the Torah or hearing it read in synagogue. Then one should concentrate on God also while reciting the numerous blessings required by Jewish law, and finally one should concentrate any and all time but the periods needed for daily business and family matters.
Summarizing the passage, Moshe Idel writes that the “inner concentration of thought and the intensive channeling of the attention during the act of prayer may culminate in a paranormal state of consciousness that resembles ecstasy, described here as prophecy” and calls attention to the locution of ‘stripping away of corporeality’ (hitpashtut ha-gashmiut) which we will see below means developing concentration to such an extent that complete sensory withdrawal occurs (Idel 1995, p. 64).It has been taught “he who prays should direct his heart”…He should arouse the intention and remove all thoughts that burden him until the point that his mind and intention are pure in his worship…Thus the pietists and men of action would concentrate and intend in their prayer until they attained the stripping away of corporeality and the augmentation of the rational spirit, thereby approximating the level of prophecy.(quoted in Wolfson 1999, p. 602)
Here we can observe two phases of a meditative movement, one in which the kabbalist takes an active role in the process—in applying the will/concentration such that it involves the heart and the body and they combine—and a second passive aspect or result of this process where the lowest dimension of the divine (the Shekhinah, from the Hebrew root “to dwell”) comes to rest or dwell upon (or within) the complete entangled heart-body system, i.e., the embodied mind. The second phase can either be read as a natural result of the first part of the process, thus emphasizing human agency, or in a manner that makes more room for divine agency and grace such that the first part is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the latter. As opposed to just a mental quality, there is now an “involvement of all the limbs in kavvanah”, which “helps to make man into a tabernacle for the Shekhinah to dwell in”12 (Tishby 2008, p. 954).Come and see. When a man applies his will to worship his Master, the will alights first upon the heart, which is the support and foundation of the whole body. Then this good will suffuses all the bodily organs, and the will of all the bodily organs and the will of the heart combine together, and they attract the radiance of the Shekhinah to dwell with them, and that man becomes a portion of the Holy One, blessed be He.(quoted in Tishby 2008, p. 954)
3.2. Seclusion and Prophetic Concentration (Hitbodedut)
Once one has satisfied all these conditions, then one can begin “the meditation of Divine Names, called sod ha-hazkarah” which Fenton notes is “an appellation again evoking the specific term dhikr used by the Sufis to denote solitary meditation” where one similarly pronounces different divine names in a specific rhythmic and melodic manner accompanied by breath control and particular head movements. (ibid., p. 275) A similar procedure for hitbodedut as physical retreat is prescribed in an anonymous text, Shaarei Tzedek (Gates of Righteousness) (13th CE) mostly likely written by a student of Abulafia’s, which describes the practice as follows:Prepare yourself by uniting your heart and unifying your body. Then choose a special place where nobody in the world can hear your voice. Retire to the most complete isolation and attain the state of solitude (hitboded). Sit yourself in a particular place, in a room or a cell and disclose your secret to none. If possible practice this method in the daytime in a house, even if it be for an instant. However the most propitious moment is at night. Take heed that all vanities of this world be emptied from your mind at the time you prepare yourself to converse with your Creator, if you desire that He manifest His greatness to you. Wrap yourself in your prayer-shawl and adorn your head and arms with the phylacteries, so that you may be smitten with reverence in the presence of the shekhinah (Divine Presence), which henceforth encompasses you. Take care that your garments be clean and clad yourself in white if possible, for such preliminaries heighten concentration in love and fear.(quoted in Fenton 1995, p. 275–76)
This method consists, first of all, in the cleansing of the body itself, for the physical is symbolic of the spiritual. Next in the order of ascent is the cleansing of your bodily disposition and your spiritual propensities (…) On this account seclusion in a separate house is prescribed, and if this be a house where no (external) noise can be heard, the better. At the beginning it is advisable to decorate the house with fresh herbs in order to cheer the vegetable soul which a man possesses alongside his animal soul. Next, one should have recourse to musical instruments or to the chanting of liturgical verse through love for the Torah in order to arouse the animal souls which all men possess alongside the rational soul. Then one can resort to the visualisation of the intelligibles and contemplation. Next one will proceed with the pronunciation of consonants which (in permutated form) are unintelligible in order to detach the soul and purify it of all forms formerly within it.(quoted in Fenton 1995, p. 282)
Russ-Fishbane describes this state as a “complete absorption of the heart and mind in the divine” in which “the withdrawal of the soul in the act of meditation culminated in a total silencing of bodily sensation and self-awareness” (ibid., p. 119). Here the role of sensory withdrawal is even more explicit in the “suspending of the sensory part of the soul”, which is undoubtedly aided by the solitary retreat setting. “The goal of khalwah”, Russ-Fishbane emphasizes, “was to deaden the body to all worldly stimuli and thereby refine the soul’s natural inclination to its divine origin” since for the practitioners within this movement, “the darkening of outer vision is the preliminary to inner illumination” (ibid., p. 120).the emptying of the heart and mind of everything other than Him, may He be exalted, and allowing it to be filled and inhabited by Him (wa-ta‘ammurihi bihi). This is achieved by suspending the sensory part of the soul, or most of it, directing the appetitive part away from all other worldly matters and inclining it toward Him, may He be exalted, and preoccupying the rational part with Him.”
For Rabbi Isaac, hitbodedut is “a mental state in which the adept empties his mind of all else but God” but the way to get there is by first realizing the stage of “cleaving” (devekut) which corresponds to the stabilization of attention by visualizing the letters of the tetragrammaton “as if they were written before him in Hebrew script, each letter appearing to him in gigantic dimensions” (Fenton 1995, p. 284). If one is able to stabilize the visualization of the letters to such an extent that one achieves a “separation from or equanimity toward worldly things”—which Idel correlates with “a condition of ataraxia (“absence of passion”)” and can be understood as an experience of being neither attracted nor repulsed by any distracting thoughts or sensory stimuli—then the heightened state of concentrative hitbodedut can be reached, itself the platform for the attainment of the Holy Spirit (ruach ha-kodesh) and even prophecy (Idel 1988b, p. 113). This state is associated with a solitary retreat—even if it wasn’t realized within one—because it is as if one’s concentrative awareness is secluded from sensory stimuli, as if one were in an environment of complete sensory deprivation.He who merits the secret of communion [with the divine] will merit the secret of equanimity (hishtawwut), and if he receives this secret, then he will also know the secret of hitbodedut, and once he has known the secret of hitbodedut, he will receive the Holy Spirit, and from that prophecy, until he shall prophesy and tell future things.(quoted in Fenton 1995, p. 283)
This passage might provide us some additional insight into the use of music in retreats mentioned in Shaarei Tzedek above, given the Biblical precedent Vital sees for the use music to cultivate states of absorption and ultimately even prophecy. The disembodied (or completely absorbed) nature of prophecy is why it is sometimes referred to as a special kind of sleep (tardema) and the extreme level of absorption is emphasized such that even the slightest “tangential” sensory perception, which more literally means as if “by a thread” (ke-khut ha-sa’arah), will sever the connection with the divine worlds (Magid 2015, p. 238). In another passage, this state is even compared to death: “He should close his eyes and separate his thought from all matters of this world as if his soul departed from him like one who has died who feels nothing at all” (quoted in Wolfson 2005, p. 121).You already know that all manner of apprehending the divine requires solitude so that the mind will not be distracted. The individual must be alone with his thoughts until the last moment and peel away his body from his mind/soul until he no longer feels that he is a material being but a purely spiritual entity. The more one is able to do this, the stronger one’s apprehension will become. If one is disturbed by a noise or a movement, one’s thought process will cease. Or, if one has thoughts of material existence, one’s thought process will be disrupted and one’s communion with the upper spheres will be severed, at which point one will apprehend nothing. This is because the holy spheres above do not rest on one who is attached to physicality, even tangentially. This is why prophecy and the Holy Spirit are called slumber (tardama), dream (halom), or vision (hazon). In the end even though a person may be fit to attain the Holy Spirit, if he does not accustom himself to sever his body from his soul, he will not achieve it. This is the secret as to why the disciples of the prophets used musical instruments (drums and fifes) (1 Samuel 10:5). They were able to enter into a sustained state of contemplation and separation of body and soul by means of the sweetness of the music. At that moment, the musician ceased playing and the prophets continued in their state of communion and prophesied.
3.3. Nullification (Bittul)
Here, we see an echo and development of the idea of the “divestment of corporeality” (hitpashtut ha-gashmiut) we saw in Vital, called “forgetting” corporeality and it is similarly accomplished in stages, though here the trajectory is through the four worlds first introduced by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16th CE). The first world, the world of “action” (asiyah) is presumably the physical world perceived through the senses that the practitioner starts in as he begins the prayers. In the next world of “formation” (yetzirah)—the first world mentioned in the passage—the most salient experience is bliss or pleasure, and no particular absorption is alluded to. It is only in the world of “creation” (bri’ah) that is marked by the beginning stages of sensory withdrawal, such that one can no longer hear (or notice) the sound of the prayers emanating from one’s mouth, and perhaps the other senses are decoupled as well. The final world of “emanation” (atzilut), is the world of the sefirot proper, which also corresponds to the experience of ayin (nothingness) where all of one’s senses and bodily awareness (lit. “powers of corporeality”) are transcended, or, more literally, “nullified” (nitbatel).In prayer, one must place all of one’s energy into the words. To do so, one proceeds from letter to letter, to the point of forgetting one’s corporeality. One should be aware of how the letters combine and unite with each other. This practice brings about great bliss. For is on the physical plane the union of two human beings results in great pleasure, certainly this is so one the spiritual plane. This is [the experience of] the World of Formation (Olam ha Yetzirah). From this first step, one proceeds to the elemental letters of Thought, and in doing so, one does not [physically] hear what one is saying. One then arrives at the World of Creation (Olam ha Bri’ah). Thereupon one arrives at the place of No-thingness (Ayin), wherein all of one’s physical presence is transcended. This is the World of Emanation (Olam ha Atzilut)—the attribute of Wisdom.
While the “dissolution of the self” or “complete self-annulment” of bittul is the final goal of the practice of contemplative prayer, there are other preliminary stages mentioned in his other teachings (Persico 2019, p. 134). For example, Seth Brody notes that “Dov Ber presents mystical illumination (devequt) as commencing with the mind’s perception of the material world as permeated with and animated by [the] creative vitality of the divine, often perceived as indwelling light” which “is often designated as bittul ha-yesh (the annihilation of reality)” (Brody 1998, p. 11). He continues,‘and the priest’—that is, the one engaged in worship—‘shall wear his linen garment’. For it states in Hovot ha-Levavot, that man must accustom himself to the practice of solitude, to be separated from other people, until he accustoms himself so that, even if he is among a thousand people, he will also be attached to Him, blessed be He, and there will be nothing separating or interrupting him from his attachment to Him, blessed be He. And as I explained the verse, ‘And no person shall be in the Tent of the Meeting when he enters to atone for himself and for his household’. For it is known that prior to prayer a person must cast off his corporeality and attach his thought to the exaltation of God, as if he is not standing among people, he is able to pray with great kavvanah and without self-interest. Of this it is said ‘And no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting’ -that is, the Synagogue or the House of Study, in the place where people gather to pray. Then, ‘there shall be no man’ in your thoughts -that is; you shall cast off your corporeality so much so that you shall forget that you are standing among people.(quoted in Idel 2000, p. 197)
Furthermore, bittul ha-yesh, the vision of the world irradiated by divine light, proves to be but the first stage in the mystical transformation of human consciousness. When delving deeper into the structure of the mind and cosmos, the mystic discovers that this creative energy arises out of a more primordial level of divine reality, Hokhmah, or Transcendent Wisdom. Wisdom serves as the generative ground of all reality, ranging from the divine vitality animating the universe to the human mind and physical phenomena. Encountering Wisdom, human consciousness loses its sense of individuated existence as a distinct self and merges with its transcendent source.
The yichud of Keser, however, is comprised of both the aspects of “ani” and “ayin” at once. And because of its profound and lofty nature which is far beyond the level of the yichud in the aspect of Chochmah, it is capable of transforming the levels of “ani” and “yeishus” (self and something)—which in and of themselves stand in total opposition to the level of “ayin” and bittul—from their essential state of separation and division to be included within the levels of holiness. To the extent that the “ani” is completely nullified from its essential state which is the aspect of separation and yeishus, on which Chazal state, “I cannot dwell along with him in the same space”, and transformed back into the inclusion of holiness. At which point the “ani” becomes the vehicle (merkavah) for the aspect of “the true Ani” referred to in the passuk “I am Hashem your G-d”, and is now included within the full unity of the holy yichud. It is for this reason that Keser is referred to as a “wonder” (pelah) since it is comprised of two opposites—the “ani” and the “ayin”—something that the human mind is incapable of comprehending.
Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.
5. Future Directions
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
Definitions of “trance” are contentious and contested; for a historical overview, see Harrington (2016). Taves (1999) notes that “various academic disciplines have developed distinctive discourses to designate the general sort of experience in question” where “Psychiatrists most commonly refer to dissociation (or more distantly hysteria); anthropologists to trance, spirit possession, and altered states of consciousness; and religionists to visions, inspiration, mysticism and ecstasy” (p. 7). In his remarkable study, Shamanic Trance in Modern Kabbabalah, Garb (2011) notes the overlap between trance and the scholarly category of “ecstasy” but “with its multiple definitions, it is less useful for our purpose than more scientific terms, such as trance, which are supported by both clinical practice and anthropological observations” (p. 48) especially given his interest in “contributing to the field of psychology of religion” and facilitating “far greater integration of social science in the study of Kabbalah” (p. 8). Instead of employing either of these categories, this study will follow the consilient spirit of the “building block approach” (BBA) in using the more generic psychological contruct of absorption, which may (and often does) overlap with both depending on specific formulations (Taves 2009; Asprem 2016; Taves and Asprem 2020).
More recently, Metzinger (2020) introduces what he terms “minimal phenomenal experience” (MPE), which can include “full absorption episodes” such as those that occur “during lucid dreamless sleep…and deep meditative states during the practice of calm abiding and highly focused attention, for example in Buddhist jhana practice” (p. 16). He describes how “the content of a full-absorption episode cannot be reported, because the self-referential mechanisms of forming an autobiographical memory are suspended” and that “only the process of entering into it or of emerging out of it can be faithfully represented in the autobiographical self-model; as such the episode itself is not a part of the subject’s inner life narrative” (ibid., p. 15). In other words, low or no meta-awareness is present in Metzinger’s MPE formulation of absorption episodes as well.
Many of these traditions are found within what scholars sometimes describe as Jewish and Islamic “mysticism” despite the term not being indigenous to either religion. While there has been considerable debate around the appropriateness of the term to describe currents within each religion, I follow the approach of Garb (2011) who argues (contra Huss 2008) that avoiding the use of scholarly terms like mysticism “would effect an unnecessary atomization of contexts while depriving us of a useful bridge to wider scholarly domains” and “exacerbates the existing gap” between domains of scholarly discourse “and the broader intellectual arena” (p. 3).
Chittick notes that jalwa literally means “the unveiling of the bride”, but in this context it means the period of “leaving the retreat” [tark al-khalwa] though “closely connected in meaning to “theophany”, which is derived from the same root” and is the association Ibn al-Arabi is drawing on to re-interpret the word (Chittick 2005, p. 158).
Interestingly, Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch (18th–19th CE) also uses the example of someone flying off into a fit of rage to describe the lack of meta-awareness involved in states of absorption known as hitpa’alut (Jacobs 1963, p. 14).
For example, the more standard scholarly reading of Babylonian Talmud passage sees it more as demonstrating determination over attention or that the Jerusalem Talmud passage is about sages being bored and/or distracted as opposed to more concentrated. In the words of Wolfson, ultimately the question and debate concerns if, as Scholem assumed, “the kabbalistic notion of kawwanah was an innovation imposed upon the rabbinic texts“ or whether“the gap separating the rabbinic and medieval mystical should be substantially narrowed” given “a continuity of tradition” between them (Wolfson 1999, pp. 598–99).
Hellner-Eshed (2009) describes how, while not presented systematically—since systemization is antithetical to the ethos of the text (p. 316)—one of the three distinct states of consciousness that are described and cultivated by the protagonists of the Zohar, which she calls “Tree of Life Consciousness”, has clear absorptive features, including “the experience of centeredness or concentration, comprising all the different vectors operative in this state”, “full presence” and “focused intention” (p. 343). She also notes the affinity with states of “flow”, identified by Seligman and Kirmayer (2008) as “external absorption”: “This state of consciousness is familiar to us in states of breath meditation or concentration, sometimes in prayer, and sometimes in particularly concentrated moments in writing or some other such activity where the ordinary sense of the dimension of time disappears. This state is also familiar to us in states of performance—for example, virtuoso musicians or talented dancers during a recital, or Olympic sprinters during a race” (pp. 343–48). See also the description of “the sleep of prophecy” entailing the cessation of sensory activity by Rabbi Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi, a member of the Zoharic circle (p. 403) as well as Wolfson (1993) for a survey of imaginal states of absorption in the Zohar.
Garb also notes that, “this is the classical Elijah posture” mentioned in the biblical book of Kings, “which induces a state of sensory withdrawal, and may be found in both Jewish … and Sufi sources” (Garb 2011, p. 64).
Although examples of distressing absorptive states interpreted as normative were not included in our survey of Jewish traditions, they are reported by authors and texts included in the study, such as Abraham Abulafia, Shaarei Tzedek, and Rabbi Hayyim Vital. (Idel 1988b, pp. 75–76; Fine 1987, p. 90).
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Fisher, N.E. Flavors of Ecstasy: States of Absorption in Islamic and Jewish Contemplative Traditions. Religions 2022, 13, 935. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13100935
Fisher NE. Flavors of Ecstasy: States of Absorption in Islamic and Jewish Contemplative Traditions. Religions. 2022; 13(10):935. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13100935Chicago/Turabian Style
Fisher, Nathan E. 2022. "Flavors of Ecstasy: States of Absorption in Islamic and Jewish Contemplative Traditions" Religions 13, no. 10: 935. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13100935