Shemini: The Return to Spirituality

I shall not float
Unreined in space
Lest a cloud swallow
The thin band in my heart
That separates good from evil.
I have no existence
Without the lightning and thunder
That I heard at Sinai. – Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk

The Return to Spirituality

Judaism’s spiritual sides have seen a renaissance of late. Kabbala, Hasidism, and mysticism are no longer the domain of the few, and their popularity cuts across society, encompassing men and women, religious and secular – even non-Jewish pop stars. This is part of a broader shift in society, which is increasingly emphasizing the experience, emotion, and imagination.
Just as the Zionist mythos sees the resurgent Jewish nationalism as a return of sorts to the days of the Bible, so too the recent emphasis on spirituality can be seen as a biblical renewal. The primary characteristic of the biblical religious experience is prophecy – the direct dialogue with God – which draws its power from the human imaginative faculty. Many have noted the deep affinity between prophecy and meditation, inter alia, because the focus of both is the attainment of higher awareness. The Bible is suffused with poetry and hymn, and serves as an inspiration to this day. The emotional world of the biblical heroes is striking – they love, rejoice, and cry – and widely discussed.

Where Has All the Spirituality Gone?

Why do these voices of spiritual renewal hold so much power today? Why were they less dominant in previous generations? It is important to recall that these processes are not self-evident. This fact is especially apparent to me when I visit synagogues and yeshivas in the United States, and see how rational and cerebral the prevailing Torah study methods are there. The Jewish-Israeli situation is thus unique.

To Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, this very limited willingness to engage with spirituality was linked to the trauma endured by the Jewish people throughout the generations. It was an insight he derived from the Mei HaShiloaĥ on Parashat Emor, which says that priests are forbidden from becoming ritually impure through contact with the dead because such contact and the resulting impurity repress joy, and they must be joyful when they minister in the Temple. In the wake of the Holocaust, Rabbi Shlomo explained, all Jews are considered to have been defiled by the dead. The grief was so monumental that it had far-reaching consequences – distance from God and the erosion of religious feeling and experience. When those aspects of Judaism were diminished, many Jews – seeking to quench their spiritual thirst – became drawn to non-Jewish spiritual movements.

Rabbi Shlomo devoted his life to bringing Jews back to Torah. He named his first movement TASGIG, an acronym of the verse “Taste and see that God is good” (Ps. 34:9). He loved to tell stories, sing and dance, as well as bring others close to Judaism. I believe that if we will walk in Rabbi Shlomo’s footsteps, on the path of joy and sweetness in cleaving to God, we can bring Judaism back to its natural, healthy state.

Strange Fire
But things are more complicated than that: spirituality is very powerful. Our attraction to God and natural inclination to be close to Him are a full-fledged desire. The Bible tells us that the only sin the Jewish people were never weaned of was the private altars, built in high places, on which they brought burnt offerings to God. Despite the prohibition against sacrificing outside the Temple, people experienced an irresistible drive to bring burnt offerings, and did so in illegitimate ways. Spirituality is a dangerous force that is difficult to rein in and control.
In our parasha, this truth is manifested through the tragic death of two of Aaron’s sons. At the conclusion of the dedication of the Tabernacle, in a moment of divine ecstasy, Nadav and Avihu approach God bearing “strange fire…which He had not commanded them” (Lev. 10:1). The unmediated encounter with ultimate holiness, the dangerous meeting of finite and infinite, ends in disaster. Without proper training and awareness of boundaries, the encounter can be deadly. It is a danger conveyed in a later era in the story of “the four who entered the Garden” – the sages who penetrated the depths of Jewish mysticism. The results were disheartening: one died, another lost his mind, a third became a heretic, and only Rabbi Akiva departed unhurt (Ĥagiga 14a).

Power Corrupts
But there is an even greater danger than spontaneity inherent in spirituality: corruption. We know that “power corrupts” and that “the greater the man, the greater his evil inclination” (Sukka 52a). These principles extend to spiritual power, which can also breed perversion and destruction.
The Bible epoch is known as a spiritually uplifting period, but it is also infamous for the intensity of its corruptions, especially murder, incest, and idolatry. These mortal sins, which are inspired by emotional abandon and unbridled imagination, are the dark side of spirituality. The Talmud notes that the desire for idolatry “came forth from the Holy of Holies” (Yoma 69b), meaning that idolatry itself is a perverted spirituality. In our day, too, this is a common phenomenon: the guru who starts out as a spiritual teacher and gradually begins to take advantage of his followers and create a cult of personality. Spirituality, alongside its positive, beautiful side, is not immune to pitfalls and negativity, and in some cases can lead to them.

A History of Jewish Spirituality
Rav Kook saw in the destruction of the Temple and the end of prophecy a process more profound than mere punishment. By lowering the spiritual flames and drying out the springs of prophecy, it was possible to rein in spiritual perversions and precipitate renewal. Spirituality was being undermined by a lack of boundaries and discipline, and contending with those problems entailed formulating boundaries and maintaining inner discipline while emphasizing adherence to halakha. If the prototypical First Temple religious figure was the prophet, in the ensuing centuries the Torah sage, the man of halakha and Talmud, rose to preeminence. In an ideal situation, the two models can both be integrated side by side, but it is not an easy task (Orot 120–121).
Many movements in Jewish history sought to restore the central role of the spiritual dimension – Christianity, Sabbateanism, Frankism – but those attempts lacked the discipline of adherence to mitzvot and all eventually broke off from Judaism. Hasidism’s success in generating a spiritual awakening and a revival of religious feeling was due in large part to its refusal to renounce halakhic discipline and commitment.
In our day, alongside the return to the land, to life, and to the natural order, there is a return to spirituality. But this return, rather than undo history, must retain the qualities that Judaism cultivated assiduously over thousands of years. We are lucky to live in special times. The attraction to spirituality is no passing trend, but rather a profound movement that enables Judaism to actualize its purpose. I am thankful to God for the opportunity to live in an era when I can be involved in these processes.

The Shattering and Repairing of the Vessels
A good model for the Jewish people’s historical process is the myth of the shattered vessels. According to this idea, in the beginning, reality, which is likened to vessels, received an influx of divine light that it could not contain, and it shattered. The purpose of humanity is to repair the vessels so that they can receive the light without shattering.
The implication is that each individual is a vessel and the light is the spirituality that one tries to receive and contain. If one is not strong enough, that influx can be shattering. One must undergo a process of internal toughening in order to receive the light once more.
Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Experience
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the psalmist (111:10) says. These days, we tend to emphasize experience, so we can say fear of the Lord is also the beginning of experience. The Mishna (Avot 3:17) warns of the danger posed by wisdom: “Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.” This warning holds true also in the case of those whose experiences exceed their deeds.
I apply this idea to my own Torah study. For years I have been starting every day of study with my students by noting the date and reciting the verse “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). Having acknowledged that experience must be wedded to action, we can proclaim with joy the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (12:13): “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.