Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Tobie has an interesting post on the role of spirituality in Judaism. I think her analysis is solid. My take on it is that spirituality is needed because otherwise people will not stick to a religion. Leaving Judaism aside, it seems clear that most of the mainstream religions serve a role of comforting mankind when facing with either the unknowns, such as what happens when we die, or dealing with the emotional hardships that life brings.

I think that in some ways the rise of spirituality in Judaism came about as the practice of the commandments became more symbolic. The Orthodox say that Torah encompasses everything in the universe, and I believe that this cannot be argued against, at least not for the ancient Israelites. There was no concept of religion. The Torah described what to do in all aspects of life. And since the Israelites were their own nation, many of the commandments also defined how the nation behaved. There may have been individual Jews that were not performing all the commandments, but as a nation, the Torah was a document that was laying out a blueprint for the behavior of the nation.

For whatever reason, whether it is was a commandment of G-d (as the religious believe) or whether it was a custom or superstition(as the atheists believe), the Jews only ate kosher animals. It was the way of the nation, just like compulsory education is something we have in this country. There was no need to imbue it with "spirituality".

As the centuries went by, I think several things happened. The first is that for whatever reason many of these customs were forgotten or not in practice by the majority of the populace. In many ways, it was the Chazal who reinstituted these customs and I think they had to add a little umph to these practices that were no longer "just how things are done". When I read the works and stories about these proto-rabbis I get the sense that they were the first group to say that just performing the commandments is not good enough, in contrast to the Sadducees, for example.

The other thing that happened is that Judaism had to contend with its rival Christianity in most places where Jews lived. Christianity set itself up as the religion where spirituality is a lot more important. As a matter of fact, i think the focus on mitzvos is one of the key faults that the Christians found in Judaism. Partially to address the spiritual needs of the Jews and partially to compete with Christianity, there was a lot of spirituality added to Judaism during the age of Judah the Chassid and the Kabbalists of Provence and Spain.

So this is my comment on Tobie's post. Mostly my opinion, but hopefully based on reasonable statements.


Blogger Tobie said...

Interesting analysis, and I agree with your reasons. I also think that more and more spirituality gets added on as time goes by (e.g, the ubiquity of the kabbalah movement). I think this stems from the modern desire to find meaning and self-identity and so forth. None of these things used to exist. You simply did what you had to do and that was it. But when the modern era invents concepts like self-identity and meaning and humanism, Judaism must either be changed to fill the need or risk getting thrown out entirely.

September 06, 2006 12:31 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

"I think this stems from the modern desire to find meaning and self-identity and so forth. None of these things used to exist."

Well, I am not sure I agree with this part. When I study historical anthropology, I am constantly amazed by how similar civilized people of 2000 years ago are to us. The societies of Rome, Persia, and Greece were troubled by the same questions about meaning and self-identity.

I just don't think that the Torah was meant to address any of these concerns. I don't know how those needs were met by the ancient Israelites or if they were even prominent in their society. It is quite possible, and frankly likely based on extant evidence that the Jews prior to the rise of the Rabbis were not very interested in these questions as a society, meaning that as a civilization they were not as mature as some of the other ones surrounding them, e.g. Egypt.

September 06, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>meaning that as a civilization they were not as mature as some of the other ones surrounding them, e.g. Egypt.

Egypt's preoccupation with death and the netherworld doesn't seem to mature or healthy to me. The fact that it hardly mentions the afterlife at all in Tanach is pretty impressive. The prophets were more worried about making this world a livable place for everyone and not empty speculation

September 06, 2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I think what I meant to say is that it seems to me a very human thing to try to understand what happens to us when we die. The Egyptians left a record of their attempt to deal with mortality, and the Tanach didn't.

September 06, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

I think when the nation achieves a certain level of stability and economic prosperity, the question of self-identity becomes more prominent, as the other concerns recede into the background. I'm not sure whether it's a good or a bad thing, but I'd say it's probably normal, so it's not surprising that Jews are asking themsevles the same question. The problems begin when they begin to substitute spirituality FOR religion, although, I think, the two very well could be complimentary, with the religion as a combination of organized ethics and ritual behavior, and spirituality, a type of philosophy or thinking to address those more far-reaching questions.

September 06, 2006 4:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home