The Medieval Review 11.01.02

Hames, Harvey J. Like Angels on Jacob's Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2008. Pp. 189. . $18.95 ISBN 978-0-7914-7272-9.

Reviewed by:

Ernst Hintz
Truman State University

In his study of the life and times of the self-proclaimed Messiah, Abraham Abulafia (ca. 12401291), Harvey J. Hames elucidates Abulafia's work with regard to the historical interactions of rabbinical scholars and Franciscans in Southern Italy and Sicily in the second half of the thirteenth century. Hames demonstrates the likely influence of the teachings of Joachim of Fiore not only on the apocalyptic beliefs of certain Franciscans but also on Abulafia's own messianic calling. Although the role of Joachimism in informing Abulafia's thought remains speculative, Hames gathers a considerable body of circumstantial evidence and interprets it in a coherent, convincing manner. He divides his study into five sections. The first, "Joachim and Joachimism in Italy," initiates the reader into the historical frame of Abulafia's spiritual belief-system and intellectual journey on the eve of the Jewish sixth millennium. In doing so, the author deals with cross-cultural interactions encompassing mysticism, Franciscans influenced by Joachim of Fiore, and rabbinical teaching of the period. As the author notes: "Although this book focuses on a particular figure, the thirteenth-century Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, it is primarily an attempt to show how ideas move between religions and cultures, and how permeable the boundaries erected between them are" (1).

Sicily and southern Italy proffer not only an arena for competing intellectual and theological thought between mainstream proponents of Judaism and Roman Catholicism, but also their less conventional representatives such as Abraham Abulafia and a small contingent of Franciscans, who shared a belief in the rapidly approaching End of Days. Common ground also appeared in their attraction to the apocalyptic tenets of Joachimism. Joachim of Fiore (ca. 11351202) viewed the progression of the world as demarcated by three statuses characterized by the "trees" of the Old and New Testament with their apocalyptic climax in the Second Coming. Joachim's exegetic method rested upon scriptural concordances that revealed the Old Testament foreshadowing direct consequences for his age. Accordingly, he believed he was living in the fortieth generation of the Son and New Testament, the second status, soon to be followed by the forty-first and the opening of the sixth and seventh seals. The millennium and the defeat of the Antichrist were yet to come. First, however, the Old Testament status of the Father, and the New Testament status of the Son would have to give way to the third status, that of the Holy Spirit, in which the monastic way of life would prevail. This third age would also bring about a greater spiritual knowledge and understanding of both testaments. Yet, Joachim viewed the reconciliation between Christians and Jews, not as conversion but rather as a union signified by Jacob's leaving and return to Israel.

Hames relies on current research to show that Joachim's teachings gained a measure of support among the Franciscan community: "The time of the return of the Jews to the fold and the union of the two nations that was to occur at the end of the second status as the spiritual perfection of Christianity was to become apparent. Robert Lerner's study has shown that Joachim's teachings about the Jews resonated among the Franciscans who adopted his teachings"(25). Hames shows acumen in comparative analysis by also including primary sources in his deliberations, e.g., Joachim's Treatise on the Four Gospels and the Liber Concordia. Joachim's belief from the end of the twelfth century that the Antichrist would appear in Rome, perhaps as a successor to Innocent III, still resounded in Franciscan circles in 1260--the period in which the young Abulafia was entering adult life. The author can say with a measure of certainty what the reason might be for Franciscan Joachimites' interest in a Jewish advocate of the Kabbalah and vice versa: "Abulafia clearly latched on to these teachings, and adopted and adapted them to reflect his worldview and understanding of the unfolding of events leading up to the end of times. It is most likely these Franciscans, whom he encountered during his perambulations around Sicily and southern Italy, who provided him with insights with which to interpret his own visions. Yet there are also grounds to consider the possibility that the Franciscan Joachimites might have found interest in Abulafia and they might have been prepared to entertain his ideas. This is not to say that they accepted his interpretations and understanding of the biblical text, his messianic claims, or his predictions regarding upcoming events. More likely, they would have read him into the Joachimite texts that predicted the events leading up and into the third status" (26/28). Hames makes clear that the belief in a progressive spiritual consciousness from one eschatological age to the next formed the main attraction of Abulafia for those Franciscans disposed toward Joachim of Fiore's predictions. By the same token, the author also notes the symbiotic nature of mutual ideas and mentalities from which Abulafia benefited as well.

In the second section, "A life Reviewed," the reader learns in what ways Abulafia adapts Joachimite teachings to fashion a unique Jewish apocalyptic, messianic belief system with himself at the center as its determining force. The author takes care to place Abulafia into the correct socio-historical context of the period. The decade prior to his birth was an eventful one marked by the ongoing reconquista on the Iberian peninsula, the self-assertiveness of the Church by way of new mendicant orders, and the availability of Greek philosophy and the scientific works of Aristotle and their Arabic commentaries together with the translation of Maimonides' works. Hames also observes it was not coincidental that the Kabbalah gained credence as a conservative reaction in influential rabbinical circles. Taking these factors into account and contextualizing the intellectual and exegetic currents of the day, the author derives five stages in Abulafia's life: (1) early years until the age of ca. twenty when he leaves Catalonia for the Holy Land; (2) the period of study preceding his vision of 1270; (3) a brief period of intense interest in "what is now referred to as ecstatic Kabbalah" until his revelation in December 1276 that he was the Messiah; (4) messianic activity for nine years, his visit to Rome to see Pope Nicolas III, and (5) at the end of 1285, a "sudden enlightenment" that leads him to re-examine his life (31). Acknowledging the paucity of immediate historical references to Abulafia's life and work, Hames adeptly continues his biographical reconstruction by consulting the copious writings of Abulafia himself. For example, his Otzar Eden Ganuz (1285 C.E.), which delves into the secrets of the Divine name, also provides extensive personal and intellectual material such as the following reference to the work of Maimonides: "And the spirit of the Lord awakened me, and I took my wife and went to the waters of Ravenna to study Torah. And when I was in Capua...I found a man named Rabbi Hillel...and studied with him a little philosophy and immediately was attracted to it, and made great effort to acquire knowledge of it, and I studied it day and night, and I was not satisfied until I had studied The Guide for the Perplexed many times over, and I afterwards taught it in many Places." By virtue of the close reading of the above and other works of Abulafia, Hames succeeds in supplementing the lack of specific historical references and assembles an array of secondary material that is biographically compelling. Other works examined are, e.g., his commentaries on the Guide such as Sefer ha-Geulah (Book of Redemption), and Get ha-Shemot and Mafteah ha-Ra'ayon. Hames highlights, in particular, the "centrality of the Tetragrammaton to Abulafia's thought," (39) for its three circles symbolized the interconnection of the Old and New Testaments and their spiritual fulfillment within the overlapping central circle. Following the refusal of Pope Nicholas III to meet with him--and the Pope's sudden death afterwards--further works appear between 1282-83 that interpret the events at Rome as affirming Abulafia's messianic calling. Hames aptly observes: "He clearly believes that his is the Messiah who will finally be recognized by Jews and Christians in 290, and though he was going through a very difficult period, shunned by both Jews and Christians, all will finally come right" (43). In 1287 C.E., Abulafia completes the third section of his visionary, apocalyptic work Sefer ha-Ot (Book of the Sign). Arguably, it is the Otzar Eden Ganuz that contains the most biographical material such as lists of students and places where they were taught. As Hames notes: "The list contains far more records of failure than success" (51). The reader also hears of the works Sefer ha-Heshek and Or ha- Sechel (Light of the Intellect) written for the disciples who witnessed his prophesies in Sicily after 1285. In his final work, Imrei Shefer (Sayings of Wisdom), Abulafia again reflects on the Divine name in preparation for the fulfillment of his messianic prophesy in the Jewish year 5050 (1290 C.E.).

In the brief chapter three, "The Politics of Universal Salvation," and in four,"1280-Rome Revisited," Hames provides complementary material that lends analytic contour to his overall portraiture of a fascinating, yet little known figure outside of medieval Jewish apocalyptic studies. He insightfully observes: "For Abulafia, the events in Rome in 1280 signaled the end of the reign of the fourth kingdom, and the fourth beast, which had ravaged the earth persecuting Israel, was now finally vanquished. The length of the exile, set out in Daniel 7, determined as "a time, two times and half a time," was over, and with the renewed revelation of the name, a new age was about to start. The seal of truth (emet) reveals that the reign of the beast had ended after 5040 years, which implies that all of mankind had in essence been in exile, non-Jews included. Abulafia's contention seems to be that the Christians are part of Israel, part of the truth (emet), and there needs to be a process of reconciliation, not retribution, so that a new temple, presumably for all peoples, can be constructed. Abulafia's ideal was of universal redemption and perfection, regardless of religion, in the knowledge of God through knowledge of the Holy Name" (55-56). Under the rubric of universal salvation, Hames cogently demonstrates the apocalyptic dialectic between Joachimite prophesy, its adoption by Franciscan adherents and Abulafia's unique synthesis on the basis of a cabbalistic understanding of the Divine Name in concert with the Tetragrammaton. The final chapter is aptly entitled: "Abulafia the 'Diplomat': Was there Method in his Madness?" Hames presents "two plausible explanations," both contingent on the Franciscan connection. The first posits the notion that Franciscan elements opposed to Joachimite teachings may have detained Abulafia. The second and "more intriguing possibility is that he was cautiously welcomed by the Franciscans who were interested in his papal mission, and who may have shared his belief that the end of days was first approaching (100).

In his conclusion, Hames refers to Abulafia's allusion to a dispute with a Christian. The opponent poses the entrapping question whether or not the forefathers achieved perfection before Moses and the Law--a question reminiscent of Joachim of Fiore's "exegesis of the biblical text." If they had, then the Torah would be superfluous and forefathers' stories could be construed as implying "future perfection" in the Christian "New Covenant." Abulafia counters with a direct reference to Jacob's ladder: "Abulafia's response negates the Joachimite reading by implying that the forefathers' perfection was based on oral knowledge of the true inner meaning of the Torah as revealed to them by God. He uses Jacob's dream of the ladder connecting between heaven and earth to get the Christian to admit that it is a prophetic revelation of the perfection that can be achieved by those who seek the true Divine essence, each according to his ability. The giving of the Torah on Sinai was in order to provide a teaching aid for the achievement of perfection not just of individuals but for a whole nation, and thus the Torah is a witness to the special status of the Jews" (103). Thus, Abulafia appropriates Joachim's teaching only to "turn it on its head" and emphasize the primacy of the Jews irrespective of an envisioned reconciliation. Not surprisingly, the disciples of Abulafia distanced themselves from his messianic, apocalyptic teachings once 1290 had passed without heralding the end of time. Contemporary rabbinical scholars also take note chiefly of Abulafia's writings about the Divine name and his commentary on Maimonides. Little or no mention is heard of his underlying messianic aspirations and apocalyptic predictions. In contrast, Hames study offers the reader a convincing historical correction that cogently postulates the significance both of Abraham Abulafia as a subversive exponent of Joachimism and the symbiotic relationship between himself and like-minded Franciscans.