Hasidic Prayer Life

Hasidic Prayer Life

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By the early 19th century, Hasidism became "the first religious trend in Judaism since the days of the Second Temple which had a self-defined way of life and recognizable rite of worship, but yet was acknowledged by those who differed from it as a legitimate Jewish phenomenon" ("Hasidism," Encyclopedia Judaica). The Hasidism I am referring to is not to be confused with the group of people, probably Sabbatians, organized by Rabbi Jehuda Hasid on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1699 and 1700 (Scholem 331). The Hasidism I am referring to was formed by Israel Baal Shem ("Master of the Holy Name") and replaced Sabbatianism in Volhynia and Podolia after its fall.
There are several reasons why Hasidism has become a successful movement. One of the biggest reasons is its appeal to the unsophisticated and uneducated; it attempted to spread mysticism to the masses (Blumenthal 136). Its founder was not even a scholar in Jewish law. Hasidism comes from direct religious experience, not a theory or vision. An obvious way to attain a religious experience is through prayer.
Because of Hasidism's spiritualistic focus, prayer is its central activity (Blumenthal 111). There are several types of prayer: Zoharic-Lurianic-Habad type, unifying-the-letters type, devekut type (meditative ecstasy and tumultuous ecstasy), and the intimate presence type. There is no single main or central type of prayer practiced within Hasidism, but they all incorporate Kavvana. Kavvana is the act of spiritual consciousness-raising. The goal is to completely focus one's senses and one's soul on God during prayer.
There are two types of the devekut prayer: the meditative and tumultuous. They both grew from the same structure of thought and lead to a true mystical ecstasy (Blumenthal 127). The meditative presents a more serene external behavior while a sense of burning or steady ecstasy is internal. The tumultuous is an uncontrollable, wild external behavior from the volatile ecstasy felt from within.
In Blumenthal, volume 2, p.135, there are three examples of meditative ecstasy prayer. The second passage illustrates what comes to my mind when I think of meditative ecstasy. The person has turned his attention, energy, and thoughts toward God. There is sincerity in his prayer as well; he is not begging for his wife to recover from an illness, nor is he asking to succeed in a job interview. He wants to praise and serve God because he loves Him, not because he is requesting a favor.

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This person already knows that God has given him many gifts, such as life. God then rewards him with a curious mystical experience. It is not like the mysterious and strange events one thinks of when they hear "mystical experience;" it is a peaceful and emotional experience. He is filled with "a burning and awesome love." This feeling is not reflected in his face nor in his physical actions. In fact, anyone who looks at this person may have no idea that an experience with God is occurring; he looks like he is in meditation.
This passage also states that "only those who are already at one with God/ may attain this prayer." This implies that one must pray with the element of Kavvana often. Any person off the street may not one day decide that he wants to have a mystical experience and pray. There is a discipline involved. One must pray often, almost as a sort of practice. It is very difficult not to let your mind wander while you are still for a long period of time. Only the most devoted and practiced may experience God through devekut prayer.
The third passage describes a time when one has such a direct experience with God that he cannot control his speech. He becomes a tool of God, reciting what He compels him to. Only in Kavvana is this possible; you cannot think of chores while praying and feel God fill your soul. One must direct their utmost attention to the Lord and channel all of their energy in sincerely praising Him.
There is a difference between this type of automatic speech and the tumultuous ecstasy where the person involved yells or recites passages while flailing his body, rolling on the ground, or some other physical activity. The automatic speech in meditative ecstasy is calm and steady. The person cannot control what he says, but remains somewhat in control of his physical motions.
Page 141 of Blumenthal has two texts referring to the tumultuous ecstasy of devekut type prayer. The first is a strange passage which compares prayer to sexual intercourse with the Divine Presence (Shekhinah). When two people begin the act of intercourse, they move their bodies together and eventually are in sync with each other. At the climax, body movement ends. Such is the case with prayer. The beginning of intercourse is the swaying of the body, the middle is the flailing of limbs and perhaps automatic speech, and the climax or end is the "heights of the unions with the Presence,/ the movement of his body ceases."
This process is compared to sexual intercourse in that it is a very personal and loving act. It does not extend to a one night stand; this type of experience is reserved for the tender love and commitment of a loving relationship. It also refers to the feeling of oneness with God or the Divine Presence. The beauty of making love is that two different souls come together as one for a period of time; this is what happens with Shekhinah during tumultuous ecstasy.
This reference to Shekhinah reminds us of Hasidism's connection with Kabbalism. Hasidism appeared where Sabbatianism was strongest and was becoming very nihilistic (Scholem 330). Sabbatians followed the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi, a Jewish rabbi and Kabbalist who proclaimed himself the Messiah (Scholem 290). Hasidism wanted to make Kabbalism more accessible to everyone (as Kabbalism was very esoteric), and attempted "to preserve those elements of Kabbalism which were capable of evoking a popular response, but stripped of their Messianic flavor," (Scholem 329).
The second passage is a warning to others. The narrator is talking to non-Hasidim. We know that he is not talking to Hasidim because Hasidim would recognize this event as a spiritual experience. Non-Hasidim would view this person as a fraud or perhaps with mental problems. The narrator tells them not to laugh at anyone who seems to lose control of their body while praying. The person praying cannot help their body movements; he is so filled with the spirit of the Lord that he does what He compels him to do. There is no element of choice in his activity.
The narrator compares movement during tumultuous ecstasy to a man who is drowning in a river. The person drowning makes all sorts of gestures to save himself; he does not care how silly he appears. Witnesses do not point and laugh at this man. They understand that his life is at stake and empathize with him. If they were in the same situation as the drowning man, they would be doing everything in their power not to die, regardless of vanity.
To compare a man in tumultuous ecstasy to a man who is drowning is a very bold statement. This implies that the person in prayer is in trouble of some sort. He is trying to save himself. Shekhinah appears to be the final obstacle to life or freedom. Once the man has wrestled with Shekhinah and triumphs, he is worthy of salvation.
While reading the prayers and passages in Blumenthal, I could not help but be reminded of Sufism. I have seen video footage of Sufis chanting and swaying their heads for a period of time, and eventually going in to a sort of trance. Some rolled on the ground, some howled, some shook; it was hard to tell what they were saying, but it sounded like they were continuing their prayers. Whether this was automatic speech or a forced attempt to continue the experience I am not sure; however, it bears a striking resemblance to devekut type prayer. In Kavvana, one is to empty their mind and soul of impure thoughts. They have to focus all of their energy and thought on God in order to gain a mystical experience. I am not aware of the Sufis' specific instructions, but I do know that they had to perform certain chants and body movements (similar to those in Hinduism) to gain this sort of experience. They, too, had to empty their thoughts of the profane. The whirling dervishes within Sufism perform a specific dance to achieve a mystical experience, but before they can engage in the dance they must clear their minds of worldly thoughts and ask God's permission to go forward.
There seems to be a central theme within these mystical experiences. Whether or not one sect is right I do not know, nor am I particularly concerned. These rival religions demonstrate that there is a constant which must be achieved to experience God's love: total devotion to and concentration on God. The prayer must be genuine and sincere. One should be so absorbed in prayer and oblivious to what is going on around him that he should be ready to die in that prayer (Blumenthal 133). All of his energy should be used in praying so that only by God's grace is that person able to live.
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