Shiur #28: Spirituality

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.    Introduction


In the previous two shiurim, I discussed the soul and touched briefly on what counts as "spiritual" in our tradition.  'Spiritual' is a loaded word insofar as it seems to refer to something much more specific than merely "having to do with the soul," which, considering what I discussed last week, would have a very wide scope indeed.  In this week's shiur, I want to consider some ways that Judaism relates to what modern English speakers conventionally associate with the spiritual and see how that is connected to the seemingly more objective notions of holiness. 


'Spirituality,' in its common use today, usually refers to a kind of inner focus in which a person brings about in himself or herself a feeling of inspiration or even intimacy.  Spiritual people are people for whom the inner, mental life is given particular weight, such that the development of that inner life is seen as more important or more essential than practical action.  Strikingly, spirituality often does not require us to conceive it in terms of a connection to God, though it can be framed as a connection to God.  Thus it is not absurd that Buddhism (which might have no God at all) and Hinduism (which might be thought of as polytheistic), are nevertheless thought of as particularly spiritual religions.  What role does this sort of inner focus play in Judaism?


There is clearly more than one answer to this question, but one thing should be clear.  Whatever role spirituality of this sort plays, if it is to have religious value, it cannot be just inner focus.  I think that there is value in a kind of spiritual conditioning, of being in touch with oneself, as part of one's psychological health, but such an activity deserves the importance its practitioners grant it only if is about forging a relationship with God. Unfortunately, I fear that the spirituality that is currently popular in many circles has, at times, come close to confusing the celebration of self-absorption with an authentic attempt to find a way to develop a relationship with God. 


2.    Intellectual Apprehension of God: Spirituality in the Rambam


I have already discussed the Rambam's conception of spirituality in previous shiurim but it is worthwhile to add a few points.  Recall that according to the Rambam, humanity's Tzelem Elokim, its similarity to God, lies in the human capacity for intellectual cognition.  For the Rambam, the highest form of spiritual achievement lies in a person who succeeds in apprehending God, and, through that apprehension, loving God. In a sense, this is the only form of spiritual achievement – keeping the Torah, performing mitzvot, etc., are all understood by the Rambam as a means of enabling at least some people to achieve this goal.  This is not merely a cerebral event: the ideal is a life-changing focus in which one lives one's life in constant contemplation of God and that contemplation gives rise to profound love.  In one of the final chapters of the Guide of the Perplexed, the Rambam eloquently describes the ideal achieved by Moshe and the Patriarchs.[1]  After clarifying to themselves the true nature of God through careful investigation (true knowledge requires independent investigation according to the Rambam – it cannot be simply handed down), these spiritual giants spent the rest of their lives in contemplation of Him.  They can do this by developing a sort of bifurcated attention where only a small part of their mental capacities is engaged in the ways of the world while the rest of their attention is dedicated to God.  This dedication, though not emotional in the ordinary sense, has what we would call an emotional element that came to be called the intellectual love of God (amor dei intellectualis):


What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick.

[A lovesick person's] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for God should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded: ["Love God...] with all your heart and with all soul" (Devarim 6:5).[2]


In this passage, the Rambam's emphasis on intellectual contemplation of God gives rise to an unexpected level of passionate engagement.  Though I do not want to embrace the focus on intellectual engagement as the sole legitimate form of spirituality, the Rambam's emphasis serves as an important corrective to those who would consider intellectual engagement to be antithetical to spirituality. 


3.    Rav Soloveitchik and Pluralistic Spirituality


            The Rambam's intellectualist spirituality, at least in its philosophical form, has not found many adherents in the tradition.  Contra the Rambam, there has always been a conception of piety that is not identified with intellectual achievement and which sees spiritual achievement, a special closeness to God, as something distinct.  To be sure, Hillel's teaching in Pirkei Avot: "A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious," is widely accepted, but it itself implies that knowledge and closeness to God are not identical.  In his posthumously published Worship of the Heart, Rav Soloveitchik delineates what he calls 4 distinct "media of religious experience:" 


1. Intellectual Worship of God.  For the Rambam this lies primarily in the metaphysical contemplation that becomes accessible only after long years of training.  The Rambam's metaphysics is long since obsolete but the notion of intellectual worship has returned to its roots in Chazal – in studying God's word, His Torah, we seek to come closer to Him.  Ideally, Talmud Torah is not merely an academic pursuit but rather a point of existential contact with the divine.  It is important to emphasize that framing Talmud Torah in this way does not necessarily have implications regarding either how one learns or what part of the corpus of Torah one learns.  A person's intellectual worship of God is just that – intellectual, and as such it is spiritual activity, even if the learning itself does not bring one to the heights of feeling.  The insistence that the spiritual must involve intense emotional uplift is a prejudice to be resisted. 


Some, (perhaps most notably Rabbi Norman Lamm) have argued, following the Rambam, that we should not limit to the Torah our conception of intellectual activity that has intrinsic spiritual value.  All truth and wisdom come from God and in investigating them, one is seeking God.  The Rambam certainly believed this to be the case, though he had a very specific conception of the sorts of activities that have this status of cosmic truth (physics and metaphysics).  I believe that we can say something similar about modern science, philosophy, literature and history, so long as we do not lose sight of the religious roots of these activities (which can be a challenge and should affect how we go about engaging these fields).  Given this expansive notion of intellectual worship, the question should be asked with regard to what pride of place should be given to Talmud Torah as it is traditionally understood.  I cannot do much more than gesture at this fascinating topic and I recommend Rabbi Lamm's Torah uMadda as a good introduction to this issue. 


2.  The second medium of religious experience is the emotional.  Experience of God is to be found in the extremes of human emotion.  Passionate love of God and the yearning for His presence can give rise to the actual experience of that presence.  In elaborating this point, the Rav draws upon the description of revelation in Rav Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari: the direct experience of God that Halevi understands to lie at the center of the revelation at Mount Sinai was not, according to the Rav, a one-time event.  It can be achieved by the ecstatic, whose passion makes it possible to break the bonds of the world and encounter God directly.  This encounter is apprehended emotionally: depending on the situation, one may feel the presence and companionship of the Heavenly Father or the glory and awesomeness of the Creator.  One may also feel connected to God out of a feeling of despair and anguish.  The sufferer, who turns to God in his moment of crisis, may suddenly be filled with the joy of existence.  This radical uplifting of his spirit is nothing but the emotional encounter with God, the divine Comforter. 


What the Rav calls emotional religious experience is perhaps the closest thing to our conventional notion of spirituality.  Nonetheless, it is worth noting the degree to which, in the Rav's description, it is Other-directed.  It is not spiritual self-realization (though it might require a great deal of that) but direct experience of God by means of the emotions.  This aspect of spirituality was given particular emphasis in the traditions of Chassidut.  In many cases, this emphasis on the emotions served as counterbalance and at least implicit (and often explicit) critique of the perceived dryness and intellectual elitism of the rabbinic tradition.  Emotional connection to God, Deveikut, is available, to everyone, even the unlearned.  It is a striking comment on our modern times that the positions have been reversed: Talmud Torah and the intellectual worship of God, at least at some level, is now widely available to almost anyone who seeks it.  Yet few of us have the emotional resources to connect with God emotionally or the framework in which to develop it. 


3.  The third medium of religious experience, and the main focus of religious experience in the Halakha, the Rav calls the volitional.  One serves God through intentional action, that is, through the performance of mitzvot.  According to the Rav, there is no significant difference between ritual and ethical mitzvot in this respect:


One serves God and enters into an intimate relationship with Him by self-realization on the part of the moral will, by living a moral life, by walking humbly with people, be engaging in deeds of charity, by being just and merciful, generous and kind, by cultivating the truth, by helping others, by disciplining oneself, by taming one’s animal desires and impulses and by introducing axiological worth into the realm of a bodily existence.[3]


According to the Rav, keeping mitzvot and the attendant self-discipline is not just doing God's will but an aspect of our relationship with him.  It is a form of worship.  It is striking to contrast this passage, that focuses on actions understood as themselves, with a perspective on mitzvot that is closer to the Chassidic and Kabbalistic traditions.  In those traditions, the spiritual value in performing mitzvot lies particularly in their symbolic value.  Each mitzva has a symbolic metaphysical worth in the ultimate project of bringing about the metaphysical tikkun – in repairing God's world.  The spiritual value of a mitzva does not lie in the cultivation of a personal relationship with God (as the Rav describes) but rather in the participation, with God, in a metaphysical process. 


            In sidestepping metaphysical symbolism as the source of spiritual value in mitzvot, the Rav provides a great boon for those like myself who have difficulty embracing such a metaphysically robust symbolic system.  Though indeed something is lost in resisting this tradition, the Rav's perspective allows us to see that something is also gained.  In conceiving of halakhic action as intrinsically service of God, as part of a relationship and not on the one hand, just normative action, nor, on the other hand, symbolic metaphysical construction,  the Rav allows us to conceive of keeping Halakha as religious activity par excellence, without imposing upon it external significance. 


4.  Finally, according to the Rav, religious experience can be dialogical, i.e., involving a speaker and a listener.  The Rav points out that there are two manifestations of dialogue between human beings and God, prophecy and prayer.  These are mirror images of one another: in prophecy, God is the speaker and the prophet is the listener.  In prayer, the roles are reversed and the person standing in prayer becomes the speaker.  It is worth noting how the Rav separates out prayer and prophecy from the other categories.  Prayer, at least, could easily be placed in either the halakhic/volitional category or the emotional category.  Yet the Rav's insistence that spiritual experience is a point of contact with a personal God makes it important to give a special place to prayer.  In the Rav's terms, prayer is the ultimate religious experience in that is involves a person directly addressing God on a personal level.  The other modes of religious experience, intellectual, volitional and emotional do not necessarily involve relating to God as a person. 


4.    Holiness


In this framework, I cannot go into a serious investigation of what holiness is according to the Torah.  I do, however, want to touch on the relationship between holiness and spirituality as it is manifest in the ways described by Rav Soloveitchik. 


Holiness in Halakha is objective – it is not a feeling or a state of mind but an objective property of something.  Holiness can be imbued in time – like Shabbat and festivals, in groups of people, i.e., the Jewish people, and amongst them, the Kohanim, the priests, or in space – as in the Land of Israel or Jerusalem.  Holiness is expressed in two essential ways:


1.  That which is holy is, in some sense, dedicated to God.  The most obvious example is holy objects – when one gives a present to the Temple the object given becomes holy in the sense of legally belonging to God.  The priests are holy in that they "work for God."  Likewise Shabbat and the holidays are holy days, dedicated to extra worship.


2.  This dedication or "belonging" to God is expressed, primarily, through separation and abstention:

a. the holiness of time is defined by abstention from work.

b. the holiness of persons is defined by separation from other persons: most obviously sexually – as in who you can marry.

c. the holiness of place is defined by being a place that one does not enter unless prepared and qualified.  Impure (tamei) people are not allowed on the Temple Mount.  Only priests are permitted on the altar or in the inner areas of the Temple, etc.


Though these factors play an important role, the Halakha's idea of holiness is not limited to separation and abstention.  In many cases the presence of holiness is also an enabler of certain kinds of activities, and positive mitzvot, such as the holiness of the land being a pre-requisite for mitzvot like terumot, ma'asrot and the like. 


5.    Holiness and Spirituality


How does this halakhic notion of holiness relate to the concepts of spirituality or religious experience?  On the surface, there does not seem to be much of a connection: spirituality as described above is subjective – it is part of the way that individuals relate to God in their lives.  Holiness is objective – it is a feature of the world which imposes upon us certain sorts of boundaries and enables certain mitzvot.  Yet it would be bizarre if there was no connection – if the objective concept of holiness did not intersect at all with religious experience other than the halakhic content it contains. 


If we are to uncover the spiritual content of holiness, we need to better internalize the notion of something belonging to or being dedicated to God.  It is this positive aspect of holiness that contains spiritual power.  The idea of holiness is that some parts of spatial, temporal and human existence are closer, and more intimately related to the divine.  This can be a troubling idea to our democratic, egalitarian, liberal ears. (Without regard to one's politics, all of us, as moderns, have at least some of that sensibility.  I believe that possession of such a sensibility is a good thing, so long as it is not so all-encompassing so as to blunt our ability to recognize and learn from other possibilities.)  Nonetheless, there are people, places and times that belong to, or are especially connected to, God and as such can be experienced as holy, with the attendant reverence and respect.  Relating to God directly is very difficult.  Most of us lack the imagination and the force of personality to maintain a continuous relationship with God and the fact that God, so to speak, attaches something of Himself to people, places and times gives us an opportunity to construct a relationship with Him through those things.  The halakhic component of holiness, essential as it is, does not exhaust the ways that people, places and times can be dedicated to God.  While preserving the halakhic concept we must be careful not to let it overwhelm other aspects of religious experience.


6.    Conclusion


I have dedicated a shiur to a discussion of spirituality because I believe that many in our community either are alienated from such a notion or, alternatively, view it through an overly subjectivist lens as a purely personal experience.  There are many ways of connecting to God and different people excel in different ways.  Our tradition contains a wide variety of spiritual possibilities, some of which I have tried to sketch here. 


[1] I cannot quote extensively here as it is too long, but I encourage the reader to take the time to read part III, chapter 51 of the Guide, in which the Rambam describes this spiritual ideal.  An online version of the Friedlander English translation can be found at

[2]  Rambam Hilkhot Teshuva 10: 3.  Translation courtesy of

[3]  Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart, pp. 9-10.