Solomon Abulafia coverAccording to his bio, Avi Solomon is “a Technical Writer engaged in faithfully translating rare and classic Jewish texts from Hebrew into English for the benefit of a wider reading public.” He further says of himself:
“I am a 31 year old who lives in New Jersey. I currently work as a project manager and consultant, but have always had a passion for writing. However, I was never interested in going through the seven circles of hell to try and become a published author via the traditional route. I find Amazon Kindle Publishing a convenient way to indulge in my passion and at the same time hopefully build a following of people who enjoy my writing style.” Other information about him, and other work of his, can be found at:
http://avisolo.blogspot.com
and other places online.

Mr. Solomon has come to focus on the texts of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (13th c.).

Abulafia was a unique presence in the history of Kabbalah. He focused on and wrote about specific meditation techniques that did not involve contemplation of the sefirot.  Some sources suggest that he based his practices, at least in part, on an Arabic translation of Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras.” Other sources find a basis for his work in Sufi practices. The Encyclopedia Judaica says that Abulafia based his work in the teachings of the “Rokeach” (R. Eliezer of Worms), whose teacher was Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid, founder of the “Hasidei Ashkenaz.” Rabbi Yehudah’s teachings are said to include practices that go back to the Talmudic era. In any case, Abulafia’s focus on techniques distinguished him in many ways from the more “orthodox” kabbalists. 

For more on Abulafia, see (among other places) the Encyclopedia Judaica article on “Abraham Abulafia;” the section in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Meditation and Kabbalah” on the same topic; Prof. Moshe Idel’s The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, or:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Abulafia

Few of Abulafia’s texts have been printed; none translated in full. Some parts can be found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Meditation and Kabbalah.” Mr. Solomon’s work continues on that combination of academic interest and interest in practical use.

https://medium.com/learning-for-life/abraham-abulafia-life-of-the-world-to-come-60de5cbOdfOa#.2906ra9dn (GIF)

https://medium.com/learning-for-life/light-of-the-intellect-by-abraham-abulafia-2e33d3fb62a5#.o7csx34ml

https://www.amazon.com/Abraham-Abulafia-Meditations-Divine-Name-ebook/dp/B003YUCR1S/ref=la_B005EM85KQ_1_2/155-2224316-8801968?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1489074198&sr=1-2
(Kindle edition; cost — $0.00)

Mr. Solomon makes these translations available at little or no cost.

There is also a “Hadean Press” edition of Mr. Solomon’s translations, entitled: “The Heart of Jewish Meditation: Abraham Abulafia’s Path of the Divine Names” (pictured above). However, the publisher felt that the Kindle edition listed above might serve the author/translator’s purposes better; in part, because “Hadean Press” only produces hand-made editions limited in number. See:
http://www.hadeanpress.com/2013/12/path-of-the-divine-names/

To begin with, Mr. Solomon’s English-writing skills are admirable. His translations have none of the difficulties that I wrote about in my review of two translations of “The Sefer Raziel.” Mr. Solomon’s work is lucid and readable.

That said, I advocate, as I did in that previous review, for bilingual (Hebrew/English) editions. The Hebrew can validate the translation. It can also suggest alternative word-choices, when desired or needed. The English, in turn, can then serve its real purpose as a guide to understanding the text in its original language.

Mr. Solomon’s edition includes reproductions of some pages from manuscript copies of Abulafia’s writings. Those in standard Hebrew are difficult to read at best. Those in “Rashi script” are inaccessible to most readers. They’re also not on pages facing the corresponding translations. 

Hebrew originals on pages facing translations (English on the left, Hebrew on the right), would be one way to do this — e.g. the Feldheim edition of “Mesillat Yesharim.” Another would be the way Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s editors at Schocken chose for his translation of “Sefer Yetzirah”: complete English text first, with the Hebrew text at the back. While this seems less desirable to me, it still provides a complete Hebrew text for reference, in readable Hebrew. In any case, while the reproduction of manuscript copies can add “color” to an edition, the Hebrew would be most useful in a modern font with vowels added (as with the Feldheim editions). 

The wide-spread interest in “Jewish meditation” is a somewhat modern phenomenon.

Forty years ago, when I began my Jewish activity as an adult, based on my experience doing “Transcendental Meditation” (“TM”), the topic of “Jewish meditation” was only beginning to be popularly discussed (arguably as a direct result of the popularity of “TM” in the wider culture). The “Jewish Mysticism” section of any Jewish bookstore usually included Gershom Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” and a couple of other texts (if anything at all). Otherwise, “meditation” was mostly unknown. I remember speaking with a hasid who had learned TM somewhat surreptiously. I asked him what his community would think. He said, “They wouldn’t understand it.”

By the early ’80’s, “Jewish Meditation” was becoming much more widely spoken about, largely through the work of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, z”l. Rabbi Kaplan’s own religious “credentials” allowed him to be recognized as a member of the mainstream Jewish community. His work made clear to the general population that there had been a tradition of meditation within Judaism throughout our history. While his “Meditation and the Bible” depended on his own interpretations of certain words and references, his “Meditation and Kabbalah” demonstrated beyond doubt the presence of a variety of meditative practices, by providing specific examples translated by Rabbi Kaplan himself. He was not a “syncretistic” influence who was borrowing from other traditions, as Rabbi Zalman Schachter, z”l, might have been seen (as useful as that work has been in itself).

I met Rabbi Kaplan in 1979, although I no longer remember the actual circumstances. I must have mentioned to him that I did TM and that I felt that he was trying to deduce meditative practice from the books he read. He invited me to attend one of his meditation classes. I hesitated, because I felt that any critical comment I gave would not be welcome by his students. He urged me to come, because he thought I might provide some valuable input based on my experience. I did attend one class, and my hesitation was correct. Rabbi Kaplan, though, asked his students to listen to what I had to say because I came to the class with experience of a traditional meditation. He was a very nice person.

So, Avi Solomon could be said to be continuing in the footsteps of Rabbi Kaplan’s work.

Can we learn to meditate from a book?

I don’t believe so.

For one thing, even the most lucid instructions can have different meanings to different people. Meditating is not like baking a cake from a recipe in a book. For example, I, for one, was never able to learn to play banjo or guitar from a book — and I already played both banjo and guitar!

Further, our experiences in meditation aren’t always the same. No book can give full guidance about every possible question that might come up in the course of doing a practice. You need a teacher. Even Abulafia’s own text mentions some strong, unpleasant experiences we might have in the course of practice. We need someone to talk to — who knows what they’re talking about.

Finally, learning from a book gives us no protection against mistaking a “relaxed mood,” or some other pleasurable experience, from the highest goals of meditation. That, too, requires the guidance of an experienced teacher.

So, while a book taught by a spiritual master might be part of the process for some, the book alone cannot guarantee that you will achieve a desired result. In fact, we can’t really know what the results of meditation can be when we’re first beginning. It requires a teacher, guided by a tradition of teachers advanced in their own experience, to guide us.

Is there such a tradition of advanced, enlightened teachers within Judaism today? I would guess “Yes,” but not one that’s openly known or organized.

Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson, a HaBaD rabbi in Brooklyn, NY, has produced a 3-part audio series on Abulafia’s meditation techniques:

https://archive.org/details/TheMeditativePracticeOfRAvrahamAbulafia/abulafia_meditation_1.mp3
https://archive.org/details/TheMeditativePracticeOfRAvrahamAbulafia/abulafia_meditation_2.mp3
https://archive.org/details/TheMeditativePracticeOfRAvrahamAbulafia/abulafia_meditation_3.mp3

I haven’t listened to these yet, so I can give no impressions or evaluation. One main question I would have is: from where did Rabbi Pinson derive his understanding of the methods? I would be particularly interested if it came from a lineage of teachers of Abulafia’s practices. 

One caveat that I then have about Mr. Solomon’s translations is that people might be encouraged to try to follow the directions therein without a reliable person to guide them. I caution against this.

The demand for access to this information is out there, now. Suppressing it or hiding it is ultimately fruitless. The interest and curiosity are there already. There is a need to know more about the breadth of the range of spiritual resources Judaism offers, and to have access to them. 

We should always remember, though, that the goal of Judaism and all its practices is toAhavah love God.

Experiences like deep relaxation can be mere sensual pleasure or mood-making unless they somehow serve the spiritual purpose of helping us to love God more.

Nevertheless, Avi Solomon makes a valuable contribution. His work will be increasingly appreciated in years to come.