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The Pure Spirituality of the Future World

“But there are various attitudes with regard to prayer itself corresponding to the three principles of all reality, which Azriel borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle while giving them a mystical twist. These three principles are matter, form, and sieresis; this last notion is, however, influenced by the Hebrew translation and replaced by the principle of Nought.

The change of matter into ever-new forms takes place by means of this Nought, which can be made to refer on the one hand—and entirely in the sense of the genuine Aristotelian doctrine—to the privation of that which, in the transformations, is new each time, and, on the other hand—in the sense of the kabbalists—to the influence of the sefirotic principle of Stern Judgment. In either case this notion can link up with that of the mystical Nought, from which everything creative proceeds.

For Azriel, these principles present themselves essentially as follows: the Nought is that which is present in everything that arises as the medium of its transformation. The sefirah of Stern Judgment and delimitation is at the same time the power of transformation inherent in things.

Matter, on the other hand, persists in itself and is renewed without being transformed, like the living stream whose waters are renewed every minute but nevertheless are always the same. This power comes, according to Azriel, from the sefirah of Mercy, by means of which God renews and preserves at the same time, every day, his Creation.

However, according to him, form is a potency inherent in matter, by virtue of which matter receives an influx of ever-new forms. It is similar to the source from which the pool expands.

Accordingly there exist three degrees of prayer in which these three principles are reflected. The lowest is prayer without spirituality, the prayer that is not pervaded by the life of the soul flowing from the source of binah. This, according to Azriel, is the “fixed prayer” mentioned in and rejected by the Mishnah (Berakhoth 14:2), because it is like the stagnant water of a pool into which no life flows from any source.

Above it, there is the prayer that the Mishnah defines as the “imploring of grace,” tahanunim, in which the vitality of the source gushes forth with great force. This is the prayer of the “form.”

The highest prayer, however, is that of the devotee who casts off everything that impedes him and who leads the word whose origin is in the Nought back to its Nought. Here, we can easily follow the transformation of the concept of the Nought or Nothing into a mystical category.

This prayer is named tefillah, in the proper sense of the Hebrew term, which the author derives from pillul, “judgment.” So too must the prayer rise from the petition for the fulfillment of bodily needs to that of the needs of the soul, and from there to the pure spirituality of the life of the future world.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, 420-1.

Mysticism of Prophecy

“In this manner the ancients used to spend some time in meditation, before prayer, and to divert all other thoughts and to determine the paths of their kawwanah [during the subsequent prayer] and the power that was to be applied to its direction.

And similarly [also] some time during prayer, in order to realize the kawwanah in the articulated speech. And similarly some time after prayer, in order to meditate on how they could also direct the power of the kawwanah, which came to its conclusion in the speech, in the paths of visible action.

And since they were truly pious men, Hasidim, their Torah became action and their work was blessed. And this is the path among the paths of prophecy, upon which he who makes himself familiar with it will be capable of rising to the rank of prophecy.”

“The true kawwanah described in this text is therefore identical with the path of prophecy, which passes through the realization of the perfect debhequth with God, that is, the cleaving of human thought and will to the thought and will of God.

To this corresponds Azriel’s analysis of prayer in his commentary on the aggadoth, where the dietim of the Mishnah on the subject of the old Hasidim and their habits of prayer is interpreted in a similar manner, and a parallel is established with prophecy.

The illumination, which is to be obtained through debhequth, can therefore be distinguished from prophecy only by its degree and not by its nature. The prophet is here, as so often in medieval thought, none other than the perfect mystic.

Azriel’s views on mystical prayer, remarkable for their conciseness, are then applied to the statutory prayers, the prayer of the eighteen benedictions (the ‘Amidah), and the profession of unity (the Shema‘).

According to him the ‘Amidah contains three kinds of petitions: those that concern the well-being and needs of the body, those relating to the well-being and needs of the soul, and those dealing with the needs of the life of the soul, which is nothing other than the spiritual life of the future world itself. It is, of course, in this last stratum that the mystical meaning of the prayers is disclosed.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 419.

Magical Conformity of the Will in the Kawwanah

“This brief text gives a very precise and valuable description of what takes place in the kawwanah. The completeness and precision of expression are unrivaled in the literature of the Kabbalah; we doubtless owe these qualities to the fact that the author wished to describe the magic of the kawwanah—but at the same time also described, to a great extent, its mystical nature.

The relationship between these two attitudes of prayer emerges here, in fact, with a rare clarity and penetration. The mystical conformity of the will is visibly transformed into a magical one, the roots of which, it must not be forgotten, reach back further than the Kabbalah.

The magical nuance in the conformity of the will is already adumbrated in the famous dictum in the Mishnah tractate known as The Sayings of the Fathers. Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Yehudah ha-Nasi, used to say: “Make His will as your will in order that He make your will as His will. Abolish your will before His will, in order that He abolish the will of others before your will.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 416.

Mysteries Not to be Discussed

He made no secret of the fact that the Kabbalah was the positive ground on which he stood in his struggle against rationalist enlightenment. He derided the Maimonideans in witty verses in which he sought to expose the weaknesses of their position. But the kabbalistic doctrines themselves, which he manifestly opposes to them, are only for initiates who weigh their words and know how to keep silent. He had studied the secret science with Ezra and Azriel:

Yes, my supports are Ezra and Azriel, who pour kabbaloth onto my hands.”

In a panegyric to the members of his circle he bemoans the death of the two “whose shields hang upon my walls.” He stands on solid ground:

The ‘ephod is in our midst; and why should we conjure the dead; in our hands the tablets are intact. The son of Nahman is a firm refuge, his discourses are measured and do not gallop away recklessly. Ezra and Azriel and my other friends, who taught me knowledge without lying—they are my priests, the luminous stars of my night. They know number and measure for their Creator, but they guard themselves from speaking publicly of God’s glory and they mind their words with a view to the heretics.

His masters in mysticism taught him to keep silent; nevertheless, he mentions the mystical kawwanah of the prayers, the meditation in the profession of unity, the mystical reasons for precisely those commandments that were emphasized by the kabbalists of Gerona, and he alludes to the doctrine of the sefiroth.

Like Jacob ben Shesheth, he reproaches the rationalists for no longer knowing how to pray, and he defends the mystical character of those aggadoth that embarrassed them the most:

Softly—you who find fault with the aggadoth! Perhaps they are mysteries, not to be discussed.

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, p. 409.

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