Religious Experience

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

In memory of Rebbetzin Miriam Wise, Miriam bat Yitzhak veRivkah z”l,
whose yahrtzeit is on 9 Tevet.
By Rav Yitzchak and Stefanie Etshalom




In the same way that musical and artistic experiences strengthen a person's connection to those realms, so too religious experiences strengthen one's affinity to religion and the service of God. I refer here to any type of religious experience - not only some unique experience associated with a special prayer, a special mitzva or a special time, and not necessarily the experience of communion with God out of religious ecstasy, as emphasized by Chassidut, or out of intensive study of Mussar, as advised by the Mussar masters. I am talking especially about the type of religious experience that is quite widespread today, primarily among young people - the religious experience associated with singing and dancing. Such an experience provides a person with emotional satisfaction and spiritual delight, and these feelings drive people to seek out such experiences.


It is precisely for this reason that some authorities have expressed reservations about seeking out religious experiences, for they view the search as a quest for personal gratification, rather than true service of God undertaken for the sake of Heaven. In certain circles, any spiritual pleasure accompanying the performance of a mitzva is regarded as a defect in one's service of God. The Sochaczewer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein, strenuously counters this view (specifically in relation to the pleasure derived from Torah study) in the introduction to his "Eglei Tal":


As I speak of this, I remember hearing certain people stray from the path of reason regarding the study of our holy Torah; they say that if one studies Torah, conceives novel ideas, and takes delight in his study, he is not studying Torah so much for its own sake, as would be the case if he would engage in simple study, without deriving any pleasure from his study, it being exclusively for the sake of the mitzva. He who studies and takes delight in his learning mingles personal pleasure into his study.

In truth, however, this is a well-known mistake. On the contrary, the essence of the mitzva of Torah study is to rejoice, be happy, and delight in one's study, for the words of Torah will then be absorbed into his blood, and since he derives pleasure from the words of the Torah, he will cleave to them.


            Regarding the other mitzvot as well, I see no reason to disqualify the religious experience and spiritual satisfaction that may accompany their observance. The Mishna (Avot 4:2) states:


Ben Azzai says: Run to do even the slightest mitzva and flee from sin, for one mitzva leads to another mitzva, and one sin to another sin, for the recompense of a mitzva is a mitzva, while the recompense of a sin is a sin.


Rabbi Ovadya Bartenura explains (ad loc.):


"For the recompense of a mitzva is a mitzva" - for Heaven assists one who has performed a mitzva and arranges for him to perform another mitzva so as to reward him for the two. Similarly regarding the recompense of a sin.

Another explanation: "For the recompense of a mitzva is a mitzva" - whatever reward and delight a person experiences through the performance of a mitzva is considered as an independent mitzva, so that he will be rewarded for the mitzva that he performed as well as for the delight and pleasure experienced through its performance.


            This is a radical statement - a person is rewarded not only for a mitzva that he performs, but also for the delight he takes in its performance. Indeed, "Mitzvot were not given for the sake of pleasure" (Rosh Ha-shana 28a) - in the material sense. But as for the spiritual satisfaction that a person enjoys when he performs a mitzva - not only is it not a defect in his performance of the mitzva, but it is even a mitzva in its own right, for which the person will receive separate reward.


            Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Orot Ha-Kodesh I, sha'ar 2, 74) notes that "A person cannot live by his reason alone, nor by his emotions alone. He must always mingle his reason together with his emotions." This is especially true in our day, when the emphasis placed upon emotions (as opposed to reason) has become an integral part of our lives.


            Needless to say, I am talking about Jewish religious experiences. Many people today view the various idolatrous Eastern religions as paragons of religious experience. These religions foster intense experiences that have deeply impressed Westerners and have become archetypes of religiosity. Yet the Eastern proponents of such experiences display total insensitivity to the social problems of mankind. They show no interest in bettering the world or striving for justice and righteousness. In their own countries, people die in the streets and nobody notices. These religious experiences constitute their entire world and are an end in themselves.


            Rabbi Kook discusses this problem: "A person imagines that he is drawing closer to the holy, that he is achieving ecstasy, that he is tasting communion with God" (Shemona Kevatzim, kovetz 7, no. 117). However:


This foreign and imaginary communion - which in its very essence, and not merely by chance, stands in opposition to the Torah and mitzvot, to enlightenment and proper conduct, to the welfare of man and the cultivation of civilization - springs from the impurity of idolatry.




Despite the importance of religious experience, a person must not allow himself to be blinded by the elation felt during that experience, to the point that he mistakes it for fear of Heaven. The speed and ease with which a person achieves a religious experience and a spiritual high through song and dance makes it impossible to identify that experience with true fear of heaven, about which it has been said: "If you seek her like silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then shall you understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God" (Mishlei 2:4-5). Regarding the need for concerted intellectual effort, as opposed to an emotional experience, Rabbi Kook writes as follows (Shemona Kevatzim, kovetz 1, no. 145):


The emotions are quicker than the mind. Through the emotions, the Divine utterance is already replete with yield and content, before even a tiny fraction of the great number of riddles that lie hidden within it have been resolved.

This is not the case with the mind. The mind requires processing. Without study and reflection, nothing will be found.

Should a person exchange emotion and intellect, and wish to use his mind without spiritual toil - instead benefiting from what has already been prepared, as is possible with the emotions - his world will quickly become darkened, and entangled thorns will grow in his spiritual portion, in which he will constantly become ensnared, increasing the stumbling blocks on his spiritual path. A wise man's heart discerns both [the proper] time and method, to fully enter the sanctuary of the emotions, to delight in its delicacies, and then move on to the portion of the mind, to do its work. Then will the knowledge of God enter his heart in its most desired manner.


            Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between emotions and reason. Fear of Heaven is attained through intellectual service of God, through effort and hard work; it cannot be attained through experiential means alone (as was explained in lecture #1).




A number of points must be emphasized. First of all, despite all the importance of religious experience, it is meaningful only when it comes from time to time. When such experiences become one's standard fare, they lose their significance and impact. The experience is liable to turn religious feeling into religious excitement. Religious excitement requires an occasional high dosage, because it is not based upon full spiritual content, whereas spiritual feeling must be connected to the spiritual level of the person.


Second, the impact of a religious experience is passing and short-lived. The most profound religious experience that the Jewish people ever had was at the splitting of the sea, when they expressed their faith in God through the Song of the Sea (Shemot 15). Immediately thereafter, however, we once again hear the complaints of the Israelites (Shemot 16:3):


Would we have died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, and when we ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.


Further on, they again complain (Shemot 17:3):


Why is it that you have brought us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst.


The religious experience associated with the splitting of the sea quickly passed, and the people of Israel returned to their sinful behavior and harsh words towards Moshe, Aharon, and God.


            The same thing happened following another such event. When the prophet Eliyahu brought down a fire from Heaven to Mount Carmel, the people of Israel underwent a great religious experience (I Melakhim 18:39):


When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said: "The Lord, He is the God; the Lord, He is the God."


Here as well, several verses later we read what Eliyahu said to God after arriving at Mount Chorev (I Melakhim 19:10):


I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword: and I alone am left; and they seek my life to take it away.


            Another problem connected to the experiential realm stems from the fact that we are dealing with an external phenomenon, and as such it is liable to be artificial. People sometimes behave in a manner that appears to flow from an internal experience, but in truth, their conduct is purely external, motivated by a desire to be part of a certain atmosphere or to be seen as a spiritual person. As in any other realm that is primarily externalization, great care must be taken not to lose the required sincerity.




We have seen that religious experience cannot stand on its own. It is important and significant when accompanied by the primary foundations of Divine worship; it can then deepen that service and strengthen one's identification with it.


Rabbi Yehuda Arye Leib Alter writes in his "Sefat Emet" (Beha'alotekha 1883) in the name of his grandfather, the "Chiddushei Ha-Rim":


"And from the age of fifty years [the Levites] shall go out of the ranks of the service, [and shall serve no more]" (Bamidbar 8:25) - but they return for the closing of the gates [based on Sifrei, 63].

My grandfather asks: Why does it say "closing [ne'ilat] of the gates," and not "opening of the gates"?

He explains: For it is written, "How beautiful are your feet [pe'amayikh] in sandals [ba-ne'alim]" (Shir Ha-shirim 7:2). "Pe'amayikh" refers to the arousal of excitement in the hearts of the people of Israel, as in the expression "gold bell" [pa'amon]. "Ba-ne'alim" means that this excitement requires safeguarding and a lock [man'ul], so that it not be pervaded by something unseemly. The advantage of the elder [Levites] is that they possess the composure not to allow their excitement to spread excessively. This is what is meant by "the closing [ne'ilat] of the gates."


We see then that excitement must be kept "under lock" - contained within clear frameworks and boundaries, so that its positive influence does not break loose and cause damage.


            One more thing must be kept in mind: Different people express their religious experiences in different ways. Many great Torah authorities engaged in prayer without displaying any kind of outward emotion whatsoever. Is it possible that they lacked the religious experience that generally accompanies prayer? Different Jewish communities express their religious experiences in different ways, and it must be recognized that the expression given to a religious experience differs from one person to the next. The experience is an emotional phenomenon, which can find expression in various ways: in the intensive learning of a talmudic passage, in festivity, in song and dance, or in the very stepping out of one's ordinary routine, and certainly in the sense of standing in the presence of God. What is important is the very existence of that experience, and not the ways of achieving it.


(Translated by Rav David Strauss)