The ecstatic prayer of the early Hasidim reflects the rediscovery of God's presence in the world.
What was it about, all this ecstatic frenzy? Prayer was surely not a new discovery for the Jew in the 18th century. In order to understand this renewed excitement over prayer, we must realize that Hasidism was, in the truest sense, a revival movement, one that seeks to bring new life to old forms that are ever faced with the dangers of petrification and decay.
The strength of Judaism has always been its ability to at once preserve and renew its most ancient forms. This is especially true with regard to liturgical prayer. The power of liturgy lies largely in its sameness and constant repetition, but in that same familiarity lies the potential downfall of such prayer as it degenerates into mere mechanistic recitation. The Ba'al Shem Tov and his followers were acutely aware of this problem. They knew that prayer could only work if it were a constant source for the rediscovery of God's presence in the world.
The mystical ecstasy of Hasidism flows from the rediscovery that God is present in all of human life. All things and all moments are vessels that contain the Presence. "The whole earth is filled with His glory!" The old Kabbalistic [mystical] formula "There is no place devoid of Him" became an ecstatic outcry in early Hasidism. Since all of Creation is filled with God's Presence, there is neither place nor moment that cannot become an opening in which one may encounter Him. Hasidism thus teaches that all of life is an extension of the hour of prayer, and that prayer itself is the focal point around which one's entire day is centered.
The followers of the Ba'al Shem Tov were not the first to assert the primacy of prayer in Judaism. For 200 years before the birth of Hasidism, the mystic teachers who followed in the path of R. Issac Luria (1534-1572) of Safed had already placed boundless store in the power of man to uplift the fallen words by means of meditative prayer. Luriannic prayer was filled with a kind of urgent and theurgic messianism: By means of an infinitely complex system of theosophical meditations, in which each word and letter of prayer was used to address a particular configuration of the divine potencies, man could bring about the long-awaited redemption of Israel and the world.
Changes From Luria to Hasidism
Hasidism continued the Luriannic path, but with two important changes. From the outset, Hasidic piety contained within it an ideal of simplicity. Hasidism may indeed be viewed socially as both the political and spiritual self-assertion of the poorly educated lower classes against the elitism of the abstrusely learned.
Thus the complex contemplative system of the Luriannic Kabbalists, which itself required a great deal of esoteric learning, became intolerable as an ideal. The word spoken with simple wholeness of heart came to be more highly valued than that spoken with deep knowledge of esoteric symbols: The depths of contemplation became open to all who sought truly to enter them. One of the masters explained this change in values by the parable of the key and the lock. In former times, the mystics had access to a complicated series of keys that could unlock the heart in prayer. We no longer have the keys; all we can do is smash the lock. The only true prerequisite for such prayer, he said, is a broken heart.
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