In our days, there is a revival of Jewish spirituality. Kabbalah, Chassidut, and Jewish Mysticism, once the discipline of an elite have become popularized – and they are studied by men, women, religious and non-religious, even non-Jewish pop-stars. We are dealing with a process that is part of a broad cultural phenomenon that puts a great emphasis on the experiential, emotional and the imagination.
Just as Zionism saw the Israeli nationalistic renewal as a return to the bible, we can see the new found emphasis on spirituality as a return to biblical Judaism. The biblical religious experience is characterized first and foremost by prophecy, direct discourse with God, drawn forth from man’s imaginative capabilities. Many (most notably Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah and Jewish Meditation) have speculated about the connection between mediation and prophecy, as they each deal with achieving higher states of consciousness. Tanach, full of song and poetic expression, remains a direct source of spiritual inspiration until this day. The emotional experience of biblical heroes holds a prominent place in biblical literature. They experience a full range of emotions; they love and cry, have hurt and have happiness.
Where has the Spirituality Gone?
Why are these voices of spiritual renewal heard specifically in our times? Why were they less dominant in past generations?.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach saw this as a reaction to the the emotional trauma Am Yisroel has collectively experienced throughout the generations. The Mei Shiluach (Reb Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitza) explains why the kohanim are forbidden from coming in contact with death. The kohanim’s role is to serve G-d with joy, an ability that would be inhibited if confronting death. After the Holocaust, Reb Shlomo says, all of Am Yisroel metaphorically has the status te’umat meit. The bitter mourning we have collectively undergone as a people has had severe implications — creating a feeling of distance between ourselves and God, repressing our strongest emotions and religious expression. As the spiritual aspects of Judaism faded away, Jews began to search outside of Judaism to fill their spiritual void. Reb Shlomo dedicated his life to bringing fellow Jews back to a life of Torah. The first organization he founded for the cause was named for the verse in Tehillim (34:9) “Taste and see that God is good”. He spent his days telling stories, singing and dancing — bringing people close to Torah Judaism through his infectious love.
However, things are more complicated. Spirituality holds in it great power. Tanach tells us that one misdeed Am Yisroel struggled to distance itself from time and time again, is the building of bamot, personal altars on which people would bring sacrifices to God. Despite the prohibition of bringing a sacrifice outside the mikdash, people felt such an uncontrollable urge to come close to God that they would do it in an illegitimate way. The power of spirituality can be dangerous; it can be difficult to properly channel it. This idea is tragically brought to life in this week’s Torah portion in the story of of Aharon Hakohen’s two oldest children. On the happiest day, the final day of dedicating the mishkan, at the moment of Divine revelation, Nadav and Avihu brought forth “a foreign fire that [He had] not commanded of them” (Vayikra 10:1). Unmediated proximity to the highest levels of holiness, the dangerous intersection between the finite and the infinite, resulted in tragedy. Without exercising proper discipline and recognizing boundaries, this meeting point can be deadly. This danger is reflected in a much later era as well in the story of “the four that entered into the orchard, where four sages delved into the depths of Jewish Mysticism. The results were not encouraging: the first one died, the second one lost his mind, the third became a heretic, and only one, Rebbe Akiva, came out unscathed (Chagiga 14b).
Beyond the dangers of spontaneity, there is a greater danger in spirituality: Just as we learned that “power corrupts” and that “whomever is greater than his friend, so too his urges are greater” (Sukka 52a), spiritual power can also lead to distortion and corruption.
The biblical era, known for its superior spiritual connection, was befallen by the greatest of sins: murder, sexual immorality and idolatry. These great sins, derived from powerful emotion and loose imagination, are the product of the dark side of spiritualism. The Gemara (Yoma 69b) notes that the inclination for idolatry came out from the Holy of Holies, meaning that idol worship itself is but corrupted spirituality. In our time, as well, this phenomenon is all too familiar: the guru who morphs from a spiritual guide into a man who exploits his faithful followers in rituals of self-worship.
The History of Spirituality of Yisroel
Harav Kook saw the destruction of the mikdash and the suspension of prophecy as part of a spiritual process and not merely a punishment. The lessening of the spiritual flame and the drying up of the prophetic springs created an opportunity to regain control over spiritual distortions and to begin to rebuild anew. The source of much of the problem stems from a lack of limits and discipline. The solution therefore requires limits and self-discipline with an emphasis on rigorous adherence to halacha. If the prophet characterized the first Beit Hamikdash, the chacham — the sage, is the dominant figure of the following era. Many movements — Christianity, Sabbateans and Frankism, to name a few — in the history of Yisroel have attempted to return spirituality to its place of central importance. Ultimately, these attempts lacked the discipline of following the mitzvot and inevitably branched away from Judaism. The Chasidic movement succeeded in bringing about a spiritual reawakening and to revive the religious emotional experience largely due to their unwillingness to compromise halachik discipline and obligation.
Every day, my students and I commence class by noting the date, immediately followed by the verse “This is the day HaShem has made, rejoice and be happy in it” (Tehillim 118:24). Upon coming to the realization that we must balance the spiritual with discipline and meticulous observance of halacha, we precede this verse with the end of Kohelet: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done — revere God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty l of man” (Kohelet 12:13).
We are blessed to live in special times. Spirituality is not just a passing trend, but a return to our roots. I thank God that I have merited to live in an era in which I bear witness and have a role in these historic processes.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Berger
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