Living Prayer is an Encounter

by Esteban

“It is difficult to determine to what extent this kawwanah also contained, from the outset, a magical element of action whose goal was to force the divine middoth, toward which the intention of the mediation was directed, to emanate something of their power upon the person who prays.

The oldest of these kawwanoth to have been preserved, those of Jacob the Nazirite and the Rabad, are undoubtedly instructions relating to mystical mediations in the sense explained here, and nothing in them indicates the pursuit of another, magical aim. But let us not be deceived on this point: the differences between these domains are sometimes extremely subtle and the transition from the realm of pure contemplation to that of magic can take place in a completely unexpected manner.

Sometimes it simply depends upon the forms of expression employed in the prayer. In the abstract, we can easily imagine that, by the manner in which he expressed the sense of his prayer, the person who prayed hoped to draw to himself a power from above or, in other words, to attain a position in which his prayer would be heard. This kind of prayer may well be called magical.

We might contrast it with another, pure form of prayer in which the person who prays rises spiritually from degree to degree and strives to become contemplatively absorbed in the domain of the highest middoth or of the divine Thought itself; such a prayer may be said to contain a mystical kawwanah. In terms of abstract definitions of this kind, the kawwanoth of the oldest kabbalists certainly incline toward mysticism. But I strongly doubt whether in the concrete act of prayer performed with kawwanah, the distinction can be maintained.

The living prayer is indeed, as Yehudah Halevi formulated it in one of his poems, an encounter: “As I went towards you, I found you on the road towards me.”

It is entirely possible that here, too, the two elements come together. Only in extreme cases does the encounter of the human and the divine will assume an unequivocally clear form that is entirely magical or altogether free of magical elements. The history of the doctrine of the kawwanah among the kabbalists may serve as a typical example of the various possibilities latent in every mystical doctrine of prayer.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 244-5.