Halakha with Spirituality

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Summarized by Dov Karoll


The last verse of this week's parasha (26:2) states, "You shall guard my Shabbat and be in awe of my Mikdash (sanctuary), for I am God." The Ba'al Ha-turim (based on Yevamot 6a) explains that the Mikdash is juxtaposed to Shabbat to teach that the construction of the Mikdash does not justify violation of Shabbat. It is specifically regarding the Mikdash, the center of spirituality and religious experience, where there is a concern that people will think that other elements of Halakha can be neglected. When people are in an environment containing a high level of spirituality, there is a risk of their stepping beyond the boundaries which can normally control them. We can expand this concept to all spiritual experiences, making it relevant even when the Mikdash no longer exists.

Along these lines, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin explains (Nefesh Ha-chayyim, in chapter 7 of the section between the third and fourth She'arim) that the evil inclination will often try to mislead a person to believe that the only thing which is important is a person's intent. Thus, a sin done with good intentions is considered to be following the proper path. The evil inclination can even quote various Talmudic sources to "prove" this point. It will also bring a proof from the way our forefathers used to act before the Torah was given, since they did merely what they felt was right, without specific Divine commands.

In response to such an approach (which he felt characterized contemporary Chasidim), Rav Chayyim explains that it was proper only in the time before the Torah was given. After the giving of the Torah, it is not permissible for a person to determine what is and is not the proper way to serve God, since He has set down the specific rules in the Torah. Rav Chayyim's approach strengthens the idea that a person cannot allow his desire to come closer to God to supersede the guidelines set down by the Halakha. Rather, a person can come closer to God only within the parameters of Halakha.

It is clear that virtually everyone needs some sort of spiritual experience. People need some spiritual fulfillment beyond intellectual areas. However, it is important that this search for fulfillment be channeled properly. Far too often, I see that this is not the case. A few weeks ago, I noticed a sign advertising a course in "the hidden secrets of Judaism" - a Kabbalistic institute, exposing people with no Jewish background, observance or commitment, to the esoteric elements of Judaism. This should not be a person's primary exposure to Jewish sources! The impression people can get from these groups is that all Judaism asks of a person is that he strive to come closer to God, without any commitment to His commandments. People claim that such projects succeed in bringing people closer to Judaism, but I question what kind of Judaism they are being brought close to!

This is not a phenomenon specific to Judaism. In the newspapers, I read all the time about mathematicians, physicists and people involved in other quantitative fields in America who find themselves joining cults or other fringe groups, out of a need for some sort of spiritual experience. There are countless people who travel to India to take part in eastern spirituality, in addition to the groups within Judaism which seek primarily the experiential side of religion. Since these groups usually claim to offer "quick-fix" solutions to all of your problems, they are very enticing to many people. Many of these groups suggest spiritual activity supplemented by limited action. The idea that some amulet or magic formula can solve all of one's problems is much less demanding than leading a life according to the Torah. As a result, the Kabbala is enjoying popularity today beyond what it ever had in the past, and people feel that Kabbala alone is the guiding principle for their spiritual lives. However, what has to be the guiding principle of a person's life is really the Halakha.

Since its inception, this yeshiva has always recited both "Ba-meh Madlikin" (in accordance with Nusach Ashkenaz) and "Ke-gavna" (in accordance with Nusach Sefarad) between Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv in the Friday night services, even though the Yeshiva generally follows Nusach Sefarad. I am aware that most Siddurim do not have the text of both tefillot in them (which is why I always have two siddurim on Friday night). While I do not recall the reason why I decided that the Yeshiva should say both, I think that in retrospect it was based upon the principle which I just mentioned. The text of "Ke-gavna" is taken from the Zohar (Parashat Teruma 163:2). It deals with the spiritual nature of Shabbat, explaining at length how one can come closer to God through Shabbat. "Ba-meh Madlikin," on the other hand, contains the mishnayot of the second chapter of Massekhet Shabbat, delineating the laws of candlelighting. I believe that it is crucial to have the element of Shabbat outlined in "Ke-gavna" - the spiritual, esoteric nature of Shabbat. However, it cannot be seen as the exclusive defining factor of Shabbat. Here in the Yeshiva, we cannot focus on "Ke-gavna" without also focusing upon the halakhot governing Shabbat, "Ba-meh Madlikin." The spiritual experience of Shabbat cannot break through the bounds set down by the Halakha for proper Shabbat conduct.

The Nefesh Ha-chayyim (4:7) cites a beraita of the school of Rabbi Yishma'el, originally appearing in Massekhet Shabbat (31a). It states that a person is allowed to place one bushel of "chometin," a sand-like preservative, into a heap of grain. Rav Chayyim explains that this statement teaches an important principle. A person is allowed to throw this bushel of sand into his grain, even though it would seem to be harmful, since in the end, the sand will help preserve the grain. The application of this principle, according to Rav Chayyim, is that a person is allowed to spend some of his time just thinking about his relationship with God. Even though this takes away time from his learning, it is done in order to maintain the sanctity of his learning. Of course, if a person has no depth to his relationship with God, there is no real use in his thinking about it. Such contemplation would be comparable to having a preservative with no grain.

Along these same lines, the Nefesh Ha-chayyim (in Article 19 at the end of the book) states that Torah is the essence of one's relationship with God, and that Yir'at Hashem, the awe of God, is the storehouse which guards it. He estimates that according to the measurements provided by the gemara above (a bushel of "chometin" in a heap of grain), the "preservative" should take up only about five minutes of one's day. The rest of one's time, according to the Nefesh Ha-chayyim, should be spent gathering grain - learning Torah. In our day, perhaps we need a little bit more "preservative" than Rav Chayyim recommended. Maybe ten minutes, or even half an hour, out of a day filled with Torah should be spent learning books of machshava (Jewish thought) and mussar (ethical works).

To summarize, it is important for a person to have spiritual elements in his relationship with God. However, it is crucial for those spiritual elements to be based firmly in objective Halakhic action, and a Torah-true life. To use the example I gave before, you need to have the "Ke-gavna" element to your Shabbat, but it is meaningless without the hard-core observance symbolized by "Ba-meh Madlikin."

(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Behar 5757.)