Finding Spirituality

R’ Rich Wolpoe shared with us on Avodah this challenge:

My friend’s thesis is that Judaism w/o Qabbalah or Hassidus is mechanical and lifeless.

And so he challenged me as follows: To List aspects of Jewish Spirituality that were devoid of Qaballah or Hassidus.

I came up with my own list.

Any other takers out there?

Caveat: Remember that a Sefer like Mesillas Yesharim was written by Ramchal – and so my friend woud claim that it ostensibly has Qabbalistic overtones

One interesting outcome was that it led R’ Simon Montagu to quote the following from he end of Alei Shur Vol 1
Ch. 3 (p.30), explaining why Mesilas Yesharim may not qualify.

Admor Ma’or `Eineinu Maran R. Yerucham zt”l used to say that MY [Mesilas Yesharim] is a summing-up [or “the essence”] of all RMHL’ z”l’s books on Kabbala, and I heard the same from Mori veRabbi Hagaon R. Yitzchak Hutner zt”l. That is to say, it is totally based on Hochmat Ha’Emet — and when we learned it we didn’t realize! This is indeed preparation for the internals[1] of the Tora: by learning this marvelous book early and often, without drudgery or routine, we will gradually become accustomed to finding the internal in his words — and in ourselves. Anyone who hasn’t accustomed himself to this kind of learning, and then comes to books of Kabbala in which the internal is not concealed from view, will turn the internal knowledge into external. The gateway to the truly internal [penimiut ha’emet] is MY.

[1] My apologies: “internals” is a terrible English translation of “penimiut”, maybe one that only a programmer who is used to hearing it as programming jargon would have come up with.

As I see it,  there are a number of definitions: What is spirituality, what does it mean to “find” it, and what is or isn’t included in qabbalah.

I’m not really going to touch on the last question, since it’s big enough for its own post or series of posts. However, I wish to note that if we take the Alei Shur’s point too far, nothing since the Ari, barring some Yemenite works, is entirely untouched by qabbalah. To my own mind the more interesting question is whether it’s based in qabbalah, or doesn’t involve thinking ever-more in those terms.


I was saying there are many sefarim that define and discuss spirituality, but few that tell you how to find it. I see the challenge as not just identifying any hashkafah book, or opening Mishlei or Tehillim, but locating one that actually tells you how to get from the real to the ideal.

Whether Chovos haLvavos has enough how-to orientation to qualify is a second discussion, and more one of personal taste in shiurim (how much help would qualify as “finding”) — so I don’t think it would be a very interesting discussion.


Here are some hand-selected formal definitions of the English that I wish to draw from:

Wikipdeia on “spirituality”:

Spirituality is matters of the spirit, a concept often but not necessarily tied to to a spirit world, a multidimensional reality and one or more deities. Spiritual matters regard humankind’s ultimate nature and purpose, not as material biological organisms, but as spirits or energy with an eternal relationship beyond the bodily senses, time and the material world.

American Heritage:
1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. See synonyms at immaterial.
2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
3. Of, from, or relating to God; deific.

Merriam Webster:
3: sensitivity or attachment to religious values
4: the quality or state of being spiritual

I present those in order to justify my definition as not being far from the way the word “spirituality” is general used. Here’s what I think it means in a Jewish context:

An orientation where one is focused on man’s higher calling, the one Hashem made us for.

As I see it, this is the point of contemplating the day of death. Remembering what’s really important and focusing on it. In today’s milieu, where people can’t handle the stick, only the carrot, here’s a usable variant, suggested by Stephen Covey (“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Ch. 2 “Keeping the End in Mind”):

Picture your own funeral. Who attends? Who is sitting with whom? Who cares enough to help out? What do members of the family say to each other? Your friends?

Picture four hespeidim. The first one: Who is giving it? What are they saying? What do you want them to be saying? My own addition to Covey’s basic notion: What do you think Hashem wants them to be saying? And now the 2nd, the third, and the fourth…

Take time to really visualize this. Take notes for later reference. Really picture out the entire scene so that it becomes emotionally etched into your heart.

Your results spell out your ultimate goal; to the best of your understanding, what Hashem yisbarach wants out of your life. Know it. Keep it in mind. It may be easy to subdivide into short-term goals, it may be difficult.  (Like in business management theory, where everything is supposed to be able to be tied back to the mission statement.) Particularly, when making a decision, keep those goals and the steps to get to them in mind. Even if it’s just deciding whether to have a salad or “comfort food” for lunch, see how the pros and cons tie back to that ultimate question.

That, to me, is spirituality. Particularly since it’s the neshamah which is aware of our higher calling, which provides the counterbalance to our taavos when making a decision.

I think that R’ Shimon Shkop would call it “qedushah”. To quote my translation of his haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher:
So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” — that we, the select of what He made — should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose — which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on

him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.

In this way, the concept of separation is an aspect of the underlying basis of the mitzvah of holiness, which is recognizable in practice in the ways a person acts. But with insight and the calling of spirituality this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. In relation to this, this holiness is comparable to the Holiness of the Creator in whatever little similarity. Just as the Act of the Holy One in all of creation, and in each and every moment that He continues to cause the universe to exist, all His actions are sanctified to the good of others, so too it is His Will that our actions be constantly sanctified to the good of the community, and not personal benefit.

So, it seems to me that spirituality is qedushah, to stay separated for the purpose of the spiritual goal, the soul’s calling, the Image of G-d, what Hashem made us to be.

Notice there is nothing mystical in that. It could be mussar, it could be R’ Hirch’s Horeb. The Seifer haYetzirah, not so much — even if I had any hope of understanding what it’s getting at, it would tell me more about what the ideal is, but not how to find it.

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  1. Eli7 says:

    Well, I am not sure that it is true that Judaism devoid of Kabbalah or Chasidut is devoid of spirituality—in fact, I don’t think that is true—but I guess I am more intrigued by what that means for the way people pre-Chasidut practiced Judaism. Does that mean the Jews in the midbar or the Jews in the time of the shoftim or in the time of Dovid or even much more recently than that were lesser Jews because of the lack of spirituality? Or does it mean that Judaism doesn’t need spirituality (at least in the Chassidic sense)? Or does it mean something else altogether?

  2. micha says:

    I think that finding spirituality without qabbalah or chassidus is trivial, assuming one could come up with a rigorous definition of “without qabbalah”. The person who says Tehillim every spare minute, and means what he says, or who learns gemara all day and actually regularly remembers he is learning Hashem’s Will are both spiritual people without qabbalah. And I suggested that according to Rav Shimon, spirituality is serving Hashem by spreading His Good among other people. Also fully comprehensible without invoking Qabbalah.

    The element of the question I found more interesting was that of “finding” that spirituality. In other words, guides to getting from where one is to one of those ideals. There one finds a predominance of chassidic texts, although that is largely due to a neglect of texts by the Mussar movement among contemporary Orthodox Jews. Mesilas Yesharim and Cheshbon haNefesh appear to be the only such how-to guides that are readily available. Arguably, Chovos haLavavos qualifies as well, but I found it to be more about defining the ideal than the path to it.


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