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Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004) 226-250
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Between Poland and Jerusalem:
Kabbalistic Prayer in Early Modernity
Jewish mysticism in the early modern period was dominated by a specific tradition of meditative prayer, the practice of mystical kavvanot, or prayer intentions. This complex prayer represents a resurgence of a contemplative, if not meditative, system within Kabbalah. The central premise of the practice of kavvanot is that the adept's contemplative mind is the agent of theurgic change. At the same time, the adept's purified body, with yogic intensity, is absorbed into the cathartic processes of the Divine. The practitioners of this rite flourished in Poland up to the late eighteenth century. The practice continues to this day in a separate, Middle Eastern version of the tradition native to the mystical circles of Jerusalem. Today, there is a renewal of intellectual and practical interest in this form of prayer, in spite of its exotic and obscure nature.
Lurianic prayer kavvanot constitute a rite, with a transitive function, as opposed to a system in which meditative inwardness is the goal. The practice of the kavvanot consists of contemplating esoteric formulas while uttering the words of the exoteric petitional prayer service. These formulas, the kavvanot themselves, consist of Divine names, symbolic associations, numerical coefficients, and other kabbalistic themes. The recitation of the prayers with their appropriate intention unified the adherent with the successive worlds of divinity above the realm of corporeal reality. During prayer, the practitioner's mind was at one with the cascading descent of Divine effluence through the hierarchies of the Divine superstructure. In the Lurianic system, the energies were directed to the reconciliation and unification of a dysfunctional cosmic family. These countenances had been rent asunder as a result of certain prehistoric catastrophes, such as God's withdrawal from phenomenal reality (z im z um) and the breaking of the vessels that had housed the emanative Divinity (shevirat ha- kelim). Following these catastrophes, the faces or "countenances" (Heb. par z ufim) of the cosmic family sat uneasily over the shattered infrastructure of the Divine. Prayer was employed as the instrument of the [End Page 226] world's eventual repair (tiqqun).1 These ideas should be familiar to students of religion; they have been in the air for much of the past century as a result of the influential researches of Gershom Scholem, among others.
The processes of the system were absolute, not figurative or metaphorical. In order to practice the rite, the adherent was compelled to surrender to Luria's animating myth. In the words of Luria's principal student, Hayyim Vital: "There is no doubt that the one who knows how to focus on its truth causes the unions to be completed through him, truly and there is no limit to his reward and there is none higher."2 The adherent was also so compelled to learn the metaphysical system in order to bring about the desired "soteric" effect. In order to bring about the unions, the adherent had to understand the system that Lurianic practitioners preoccupied themselves with studying in order to pray with the requisite understanding of the proper kavvanah. There was also debate among kabbalists as to whether naive prayer without the proper intention was not considered effective in bringing about the soteric result.
Lurianic prayer continued the prevailing understanding of mystical prayer, from late antiquity, being primarily a rite to engage Divine power, as opposed to a meditative experience.3 In order to have the desired effect, the individual was called on to negate himself.4 This power is expressed, from the Idra literature through the Lurianic Kabbalah, as a kind of immolation. Hence the Lurianic practitioner has to immolate himself in joining the embraces of the par z ufim. This aspect of self-negation may have transformed itself into the widely known concept of bittul as practiced in Hasidism. Perhaps Hasidic polemics regarding prayer were involved in jettisoning the apparatus while keeping the spiritual experience of the earlier prayer with kavvanot. Hasidism further explored the possibilities of the elevated state...