Special Section

Judaism and Contemporary Spirituality

By Moshe Meiselman

The confrontation between Jewish life and values and the surrounding culture takes many forms and the ensuing conflicts have varied from generation to generation. At times, the conflict was practical, as it was in the American experience a century ago, when there were almost insurmountable obstacles to observing Shabbat and kashrut. At times, the issues have been cultural. The confrontation of Jewish ideas and values with Hellenism during the Maccabean days, with Greek ideas and values during the Golden age of Spain and with western ideas and values following the Enlightenment have all provided serious challenges to the continuity of Jewish life.

However, western life at the beginning of the twentieth-first century is not marked by an overwhelming series of new ideas. Contemporary western life is decidedly non-intellectual. We live in an era where many pursue unbridled materialism and physical pleasures. According to the Biblical description, the dor hamabul pursued pleasure mikol asher bacharu1–without limitation. With the birth of Noach, an unprecedented prosperity came to the world.2 Man, devoid of spiritual goals and freed from the arduous task of providing for his daily material needs, was free to turn his attention to fulfilling all of his natural physical desires and thereafter, creating new desires to pursue and fulfill.

However, it would not be accurate to say that ancient pagan life was devoid of spiritual content.3 Idolatry provided the ancient world with a spiritual dimension that could coexist with unbridled hedonism. The Talmud tells us4 that this is what attracted the Jewish people to idolatry. The Torah viewed man’s quest for spirituality as being in conflict with his pleasure drive. Pagan culture attracted Jews as a way of accommodating both. Thus, the daughters of Moab and Midian5 attracted Jewish men to simultaneously worship Peor (idolatry) and engage in immorality.

Similarly, the contemporary pursuit of happiness and pleasure has not been at the total expense of the human yearning for spirituality. Human creativity enables man to create gods in his own image to satisfy both his drive for spirituality and his drive for pleasure. This dual drive has a deep influence on many in the modern observant community who seek to accommodate the pleasures and materialism of western life with a commitment to Torah. This is nowhere more evident than in the gross materialism rampant in many sectors of the observant community.

There is no spirituality without physical denial and discipline.

For those in the non-observant community, and in western society as a whole, the need for spirituality has led to the current fascination with eastern sects and mysticism. Tens of thousands of secular Israeli youth seek spiritual fulfillment in India. They look to fill the spiritual void in their lives while enjoying the licentiousness and drug culture that India affords. Unwilling to give up the materialistic focus of their lives, they can only experience the fantasy of spiritual fulfillment in such a context.

But Judaism has always been suspicious of such accommodation. Man’s self definition as a spiritual being–whose life goal is spiritual development–is vitiated by his preoccupation with his physical self. With the eating of the fruit of the etz hada’at, Adam and Eve became aware of their physical identity as distinct from their spiritual identity. Consequently, human beings were required to wear clothing. The unclothed human being experiences himself overwhelmingly as a physical being. To heighten one’s sense of spiritual self-awareness, we were commanded at that juncture, with the obligation of tzniut–clothing one’s self. Tzniut is a necessary component of kedushah. It is the means to experience ourselves as spiritual human beings and to project that image to others.

We are required to become a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh6–a kingdom of priests and a holy nation–and to achieve personal holiness with the command of kedoshim tihiyu.7 The Or HaChaim points out8 that this is not merely a suggestion or lofty ideal, but an absolute command applicable to all Jews, no different from other mitzvot, such as Shabbos and kashrut. He further points out9 that the Torah specifically tells us that the exigencies of our own specific social milieu do not provide us with an excuse to opt out of this mitzvah. The Torah tells us that we are not to follow the immoral practices of Egypt and Canaan. It singles out Egypt,10 where you have lived, and Canaan, where you are going to live, as a way of underscoring that the demands of kedoshim tihiyu are absolute, irrespective of one’s specific social context.

However, the command of kedoshim tihiyu does not mean the simple pursuit of spirituality, but rather the pursuit of spirituality at the expense of the pursuit of physical pleasure. Spirituality comes with limitation. The Ramban writes11 that the mitzvah of kedoshim tihiyu12 comes to fill a major gap in the Torah. It forbids setting up of physical pleasure as a life goal. It means that we–in our lifestyle and approach to life–must strive toward kedushah and eschew the gross materialism of the world around us. Without this mitzvah, it would be possible for a Jew, to be a menuval–a low life–within Torah parameters. Nothing in the Torah prohibits a person from getting drunk and rolling in the gutter, except kedoshim tihiyu.

These issues are described in great detail in the story of Purim. The story begins with the lavish feast of Achashverosh. The Talmud tells us13 that the Jews were threatened with destruction because they participated in that feast–despite the fact that it was completely kosher.

Achashverosh lived a life of luxury and gross materialism. His non-stop 187-day feast was consistent with that lifestyle. Wanting to curry favor with the people and nations that he ruled, he invited them to join him. However, participation in the feast was a contradiction to the Torah’s message. The Jews in attendance made sure that it was kosher lemehadrin.14 While they did not violate the 612 other mitzvot, they did violate the mitzvah of kedoshim tihiyu and thereby, the entire purpose of the Torah. Kedoshim tihiyu is especially relevant when Jews are involved in and become part of a non-Jewish lifestyle, the essence of which is to continually satisfy all human desires, without limit. This lifestyle becomes the entire focus of one’s existence. When Jews embrace such values, they often justify it by asserting that “the food is kosher and has the right hashgachah.” The food may be kosher, the aveirah is the lifestyle.

There is an interesting custom, familiar to all who listen to the Megillah. The phrase vekelim mikelim shonim (and vessels were of different types) is sung to the tune of Eichah. Chazal tell us that these were the kelim of the Beit Hamikdash.15 Achashverosh rejoiced in the fact that his calculation showed that 70 years had passed since the Exile had begun, and according to Jeremiah’s prophecy the Exile should have ended. He fantasized that he did not have to worry about God any more. To celebrate, he drank from the kelim of the Beit Hamikdash. The Jews were sitting there and drinking too. How could they be so insensitive to Achashverosh’s getting drunk on wine that he was drinking from the kelim of the Beit Hamikdash? The answer is that once one gets involved in a lifestyle that is devoid of any kedushah, kedushah simply ceases to exist. Such an incredible desecration of kedushah lost any meaning. The Jews were totally insensitive to the desecration of kedushah. The experience was too enjoyable to notice context.

Ideally, the Jewish people’s unique lifestyle should serve as an example for the nations. Our mission is to show the world how to live an uplifted life and not sink to their depths. However, tragically, we are so overwhelmed by the nations around us that their lifestyle becomes very attractive. While it is “a lot of fun” out there, we pay a big price for that fun.

In this generation, where people want the fast lane to spirituality with few limits on their daily life, popular kabbalah provides a “quick fix” to spirituality.

The national purpose of the Jewish people is to be a spiritual nation whose goal is kedushah. This lesson is so important it was made an integral part of the Jewish calendar through Purim. Every year we repeat this lesson again so as never to lose focus of who the Jewish people are supposed to be and on what level they are supposed to live their lives.

Purim teaches us to eat and drink as the servants of God, not in a selfish, self-seeking manner. We make sure that a poor person has matanot le’evyonim. We share our food with our friends. If one sits down to eat, he must ensure that the next person can also eat. If one eats, he must do it within the context of a mitzvah, as a way of serving God. He must be uplifted by it rather than be degraded and debased. The essence of gross materialism, the essence of the yetzer hara, is when one focuses on me, me and me.

In this sense, Jewish spirituality is at great variance with eastern spirituality. Eastern spirituality demands self-involvement, focusing on one’s own being and blocking out the world, especially other human beings. Eastern meditation, with its ultimate goal of self-transcendence and self-abnegation,16 is preoccupied with the self. Before one transcends or denies one’s self, one must be absorbed with the self. Thus, it is not surprising that many eastern spiritual texts are concerned with intensifying the pleasure experience. This theme–of heightening the pleasure experience–is especially prominent in many Hindu texts. Being self-centered and the pursuit of pleasure go hand in hand.

Jewish spirituality, on the other hand, is achieved in a number of ways–through chesed,17 mitzvot, prayer and the study of Torah. But most importantly, Jewish spirituality comes in response to the Divine command. It is initiated by God’s call, not by man. The first step to kedushah is through chesed. When one focuses on others and forgets about one’s self, the path towards kedushah has begun. When one disciplines one’s self through mitzvot and is preoccupied with the service of God, one moves further on the path to kedushah. One who works hard on kavanah during tefillah and on the learning of Torah and one whose mind is focused on the Divine moves even further on that path. However, kedoshim tihiyu tells us that this will lead to spirituality only if we discipline our physical selves. There is no spirituality without physical denial and discipline.

There are two types of religious service: those mitzvot that we do physically–which are our primary form of Divine service–and those mitzvot that are exclusively spiritual, such as praying and learning of Torah. Why do we need mitzvot? Why can’t we serve God by just learning Torah and praying?

God created the world in a dual manner–physical and spiritual. Throughout creation there is a dichotomy between the two. The human being stands astride both parts of creation. We are unique in creation in that we are both physical and spiritual, and have to serve God, not as angels, but as human beings, using both our physical and spiritual selves. This is what it means to be a true human being. At the same time, we recognize that as human beings we have physical needs. The Torah does not denigrate physicality, but demands that we use it for spiritual growth. This is the nature of the Divine challenge. This is the required human response. Otherwise, the Jew cannot achieve spirituality.

The present day attempt to achieve spirituality, while simultaneously enjoying the unlimited materialism of contemporary culture, is at odds with the basic message of Jewish spirituality. A lifestyle devoted to the pursuit of happiness and pleasure contradicts the Jewish concept.

The contemporary search for spirituality has drawn many people to the study of kabbalah. Kabbalah learning by the uninitiated does not seem to demand the change in behavior that is immediately demanded by the other areas of Jewish learning. However, nothing could be a greater violation of the concept of Jewish spirituality. Classically, the study of kabbalah was reserved for those who had achieved a high level of Jewish spirituality through a deep understanding of all basic Jewish learning, and had implemented all of this learning into their daily life. Kabbalah then provided a conduit to higher levels of spirituality. In this generation, where people want the fast lane to spirituality with few limits on their daily life, popular kabbalah provides a “quick fix.” However, this route is often at serious odds with classic Jewish spirituality and vitiates our goal of being a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh.

Jewish spirituality is achieved through our response to the Divine command as embodied in the mitzvot and the self-discipline involved, as we say “who has sanctified us through His mitzvot.” It demands that we focus on others and not be preoccupied with ourselves. It demands that we involve ourselves in prayer and the learning of Torah. However, in order for all this to be effective, our lives must be focused on spiritual rather than materialistic goals. This will enable us to be a true “light unto the nations.”

Rabbi Meiselman is rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem and author of Jewish Women in Jewish Law.


1.Genesis 6:2.

  1. 2. Bereishit Rabbah.
  2. 3. Spiritual content can exist without spiritual goals.
  3. Sanhedrin 63b.
  4. See Numbers 31:16.
  5. Exodus 19:6.
  6. Leviticus 19:2.
  7. Commentary to Leviticus 19:2.
  8. Commentary to Leviticus 18:2.
  9. Leviticus 18:2.
  10. Commentary to Leviticus 19:2.
  11. Maimonides in Sefer haMitzvot disagrees with the inclusion of kedoshim tihiyu as a separate mitzvah. Kedoshim tihiyu demands that we pursue spirituality through the performance of all of the mitzvot. However, the prohibition of lo sasuru acharei eineichem forbids the pursuit of pleasure in an unlimited manner.
  12. Megillah 12a.
  13. This is a common theme in all sifrei mussar vedrush. This is based on the fact that the Midrash Rabbah and Targum on Esther 1:8 say that special provision was made for the Jews. In addition, the Talmud Megillah 12a according to Rashi’s comments and the Yalkut Shimoni on Esther 1:8 say that Mordechai managed part of the feast. See for example, among countless others, Or Yahel vol.2 p.79.
  14. Esther Rabbah 2:11.
  15. While self-abnegation and preocupation with self seem to contradict each other, in reality the process of making the ego disappear requires one to focus on one’s ego. The process requires self involvement despite the goal. This is also true in the Hindu preoccupation with pleasure that they claim leads to a higher spiritual reincarnation in a later life. The Jewish attitude is that the process itself contaminates.
  16. See Maimonides, Hilchot Megillah 2:17 “For the one who gladdens the heart of the downtrodden is likened to the Shechinah.”
This article was featured in the Fall 2001 issue of Jewish Action.