Jewish Journal


April 20, 2010

Holiness vs. Spirituality


An acquaintance recently asked me about the difference between holiness and spirituality. In America, this person noted, everyone talks about spirituality but no one
discusses holiness. What is Judaism’s view, my friend wanted to know, about these two ideas?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading. The portion begins by reminding us of the tragic death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu. “And God spoke to Moshe after the death of two sons of Aaron, who brought an unauthorized offering before God and they died” (Leviticus 16:1).

The Torah is referring to the gripping drama and calamity that occurred on the eighth day of the consecration of the Tabernacle. It was a joyous moment, perhaps even one of the happiest ever to be recorded in history. But then, like a bolt of lighting from heaven, tragedy struck. Nadab and Abihu, the two most promising young men in the Jewish community, offered a strange fire before God, and their punishment was swift and appalling, “and they died.”

When we read this narrative, we are struck by the extreme severity of the punishment. The Torah does not define the meaning of “the strange fire” that they brought, and we are left in the dark as to exactly what was the sin of these men.

But if we are analytical for a moment, I believe an answer becomes apparent. Nadab and Abihu were in search of spirituality. They wanted to simply experience the ultimate relationship with God, so they brought their own fire, went on their own into the mishkan and offered their own sacrifice.

So what is so wrong with that, you may ask? Doesn’t Judaism promote a search for spirituality? I found the answer to this question in a pamphlet titled, “Secularism, Spirituality and the Future of American Jewry,” published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., led by Elliot Abrams.

The pamphlet, an outgrowth of a convention that took place in September 1997, recorded different lectures that were given on this topic. In one lecture, given by the late professor of politics and religion Charles Liebman, I found my answer. Liebman said it is a mistake to think that spirituality is the answer for the Jewish problem. Rather, he says, “spirituality is the problem.” Liebman correctly notes: “There is a term in the tradition for spirituality, ruchnius — especially popular in certain Chasidic circles. But the more common virtue in the tradition is not ruchnius but kedushah, holiness. We are commanded to be a ‘holy,’ not a ‘spiritual,’ people, and the Jewish ethical literature is concerned with holiness, not spirituality. Holiness is achieved in a minyan, as part of a public observance. Spirituality points to individuality, transcendence and otherworldliness, while holiness points to the virtuous life. Kedushah evokes an outside source to which we submit; spirituality entails a process of self-realization.”

When I read this comment, I finally understood Nadab and Abihu’s sin. They were in search of spirituality and not holiness. Spirituality is the concern of me and me alone, while kedushah requires that I worry about others around me. Judaism believes that you can’t do it alone; rather, you are a part of the community. We are a community-centered religion, where worrying only about oneself is contradictory to our very theology.

In this same pamphlet a Reform rabbi from Sharon, Mass., Rabbi Clifford Librach, recounts how, in his congregation, there was a couple with two sons, one of whom was an active member and the other was about to marry a non-Jew. Their mother called the rabbi demanding an aufruf (blessing of a marriage) ceremony for the son marrying the non-Jew, although she knew that the rabbi would not officiate at a mixed marriage. She claimed that since her son had his bar mitzvah in the synagogue and was confirmed there, he had a right to the aufruf. Rabbi Librach remarked that the parents were arguing for a political, individual right. “It had nothing to do with Judaism as such. ... That is the depth to which we have descended: The language of American civics is being used to manipulate the exercise of Jewish tradition.”

This explains why in America the catchword is “spirituality” and not “holiness.” Never before has there been such a stress on the individual as there is today. We are bombarded with commercials and advertisements that tell us: Take care of you and don’t worry about others. We have lost the vision of “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” And when you lose that vision, you pay a dear price.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (yicc.org), an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

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