Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

No easy paths to spirituality

Nowadays we see a plethora of cults, new age movements, reinterpretation of old spirituality into new forms- all in the name of people seeking out spirituality.What is the driver behind all this?Why the search for meaning in everything but the traditional.

Strangely enough, everyone seems to think that this is new, that searching for easy answers to spirituality is something unique to our era.  But history shows us something different.  Why else do we see Bnei Ysirael falling into idolatary time and time again?  Simply put: worshiping idols was easy, an entrance into spirituality without the hard work and discipline required in Judaism.  Similarly, towards the end of the second Temple era there were a plethora of cults and sects looking for alternate answers to spirituality rather than looking at the hard work, study and discipline espoused by the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin (i.e. the Pharisees).  Whether it was early sects looking for a Messiah to be reborn after three days (as it seems was part of the doctrine of one of the sects at least a hundred years before the time of Jesus according to a recently found tablet) or aesthetes such as the Essenes or textual literalists like the Sadducees  they surely reflect nothing more than the search for spirituality outside the mainstream, just as we see it today!

So what is the answer?  Strangely enough I found this discussion in the Talmud (Sotah daf 40a):Rav Chisda bar Abba and Rav Abbahu both gave shiurim at the same time: Rav Abbahu taught on aggadata (allusionary stories, the meanings behind verses etc, Rav Chisda lectured on halacha.  Rav Abbahu’s lecture was filled to overflowing; Rav Chisda had very few attendees.  Afterwards, Rav Abbahu saw that Rav Chisda was upset at the poor attendance at his shiur.  Rav Abahu comforted him with the following parable: There are two sellers, one of precious stones, the other of smallware (pins/needles/ threads etc).  Many people frequent thee seller of smallware- the others items may be more precious, but most do not have the means to purchase them.  How was this analogous to their situation?  Rav Abbahu compared the teaching of agadata and spirituality to smallware- easily understood by everyone as it does not require deep logical analysis, knowledge of minutae and the intellectual capacity to follow difficult discourse, rather it is like a simple narrative .However, the Halachah of Rav Chisda, while of far more value and intrinsically worth more, is like the precious stones, few have the means to acquire it.

In this exchange we see the eternal quest for the easy path to spirituality.  People go for the simple narrative, the quick fix to feeling they are spiritual, rather than involving themselves in the difficult work of study and understanding needed to follow the whole package.

July 6, 2008 - Posted by | Other Torah, Talmud, Torah | , ,


  1. Shlomo Carlebach once responded to the question about why so many young Jewish people were turning to Eastern religions by saying something along the lines of, “So many of our great teachers were either killed in the Holocaust or so closely touched by death that, like the High Priest who is considered impure and cannot fulfill his duties if he has had contact with the dead, our teachers were essentially in shock and mourning, and so the young people turned to teachers of other religions to find inspiration.”

    Eliezer Sobel, author of
    The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Adventures

    Comment by Eliezer Sobel | July 7, 2008 | Reply

  2. Rav Carlebach is obviously far above me in learning, but hopefully my comments can be seen as an addendum or alternate way of viewing things.

    Comment by marcl1969 | July 7, 2008 | Reply

  3. Surely it takes a special kind of discipline (or maybe self trickery) to believe that a crystal is anything more than an interesting arrangement of atoms (and some are quite pretty).

    Comment by angloam | July 24, 2008 | Reply

  4. Crystals are fascinating. you look at them, they catch and refract the light- they can absorb your attention and enhance contemplation… Yep- one can see people taking that and tying it into spirituality- seeing in the purity and clarity of the way the crystal reflects and refracts light spiritual properties. Its nice- you get an object to focus on- an external symbol. Problem is, that Judaism doesn’t believe in externalities, in needing something outside of yourself to commune with God or achieve spirituality. Its the same as any other device used as an intermediary- meaningless and ultimately harmful spiritually.

    Comment by marcl1969 | July 24, 2008 | Reply

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