Does Jewish Tradition Recognize a Spirituality Independent of Halakhah?

BY: Danny Shulman.

Last Shavu’ot, I attended a shi’ur in which the rabbi reported being as.ked the following question: is it acceptable to use psychedelic mushrooms to enhance tefillah (prayer)?  Or, as it was reframed, does Judaism believe that creating feelings of transcendence and connection with God through “alternative” means qualifies as a legitimate form of spirituality and worship of Him?  The speaker responded that, according to the Jewish tradition, spirituality must emerge from shemirat ha-Halakhah (halakhic observance) and behirah hofshit (free will); alternative methodologies are not acceptable.

To clarify this viewpoint, it seems that, unlike either Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s or Halakhic Man’s rigid legalistic viewpoints, which limit the totality of religious life to concrete halakhic observance, this perspective does believe that complete Jewish living goes beyond formal actions by entering into the subjective and personal world of emotions and feelings.  Yet, despite maintaining that avodat Hashem (worship of God) enters the subjective, personal and intimate realm of Man’s emotional life, this viewpoint insists that objective halakhic living must be the foundation of spirituality and religiously-significant emotional experiences.  Spirituality, then, is really the handmaiden of mitsvot and only emerges secondarily in divine worship.

Is this the only acceptable approach to spirituality in Judaism?  Does Judaism really believe that spirituality achieved independently of Halakhah is illegitimate?  While the perspective which the rabbi adopted seems to be a legitimate traditional Jewish approach to spirituality, possible the ideal Jewish approach – is it the exclusive view?  In suggesting an alternative perspective to Judaism’s view of spirituality, the remainder of this article will analyze a fascinating Gemara on this topic, cite two relevant stories from Tanakh, and conclude with an open-ended question.  This will help to challenge, question and clarify how we understand the interplay between spirituality and mitsvot in the broader context of our avodat Hashem.[i]

The first relevant source is an enigmatic passage in Massekhet Shabbat dealing with multiple types of simhah (happiness).[ii] The Gemara begins by reconciling a contradiction in Ecclesiastes by distinguishing between two types of simhah: simhah shel mitsvah (happiness resulting from a mitsvah) and simhah she-eino shel mitsvah (happiness not resulting from a mitsvah).  While Ecclesiastes praises simhah shel mitsvah because, ostensibly, the powerful spiritual emotions are associated with performance of a mitsvah and connecting with God, Ecclesiastes criticizes simhah she-eino shel mitsvah because it appears to lack those qualities. Although the Gemara is dealing with simhah, I assume simhah is synonymous with spirituality, as both refer to identical transcendent and euphoric emotional experiences. This source seems to be definitive support for the theory that Judaism believes spirituality must be associated with mitsvot and is otherwise meaningless.

However, in light of the Gemara’s continuation, it seems that there is an added layer of complexity which must be addressed.  The Gemara proceeds to cite 2 Kings 3:15, where Elisha requests a musical performance in order to allow him to prophesy: “’Get me a musician;’ as the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him.” Expounding on this story, the Gemara teaches that “one cannot experience divine revelation in a depressed state […] rather, only in a state of simhah.[iii] Thus, based on a verse dealing with the value-neutral simhah of music, which ostensibly should be defined as simhah she-eino shel mitsvah,[iv] the Gemara teaches the universal principle that man must be in an uplifted spiritual state to receive divine revelation.  This exposition seems to indicate an extremely positive perspective on such spiritual experiences – even though they do not qualify as typical kiyyumei mitsvah (fulfillments of mitsvot). Thus, it seems that the Gemara is teaching that simhah she-eino shel mitsvah is only meaningless and degenerate when it is limited to its natural state.  When, however, it is channeled towards connecting with God, it can be the foundation of divine revelation.

In this light, we can now reanalyze our initial distinctions and better understand that there are really three types of simhah in the Gemara.  On the one hand, the Gemara deals with the noble and wonderful simhah shel mitsvah, the mode of spirituality which integrates performance of a mitsvah with transcendent emotional feelings of connecting to God.  In this vein, Rashi cites the example of hakhnasat kallah (providing funds for weddings) as a mitsvah which has direct associations with euphoric and transcendent emotions, in order to demonstrate what simhah shel mitsvah means.[v] This, the Gemara believes, is the ideal type of spirituality.

On the other hand, the Gemara also deals with the meaningless and vacant simhah she-eino shel mitsvah.  This type of spirituality, never transcending the status of being purposeless – “eino shel mitsvah” – is the kind of spirituality associated with hedonistic behavior. It involves achieving an intense feeling of bliss associated with extreme physical pleasure that is unredeemed and unhallowed.  This type of spirituality is criticized in the Gemara because it is meaningless and limited to eliciting pleasant and enjoyable feelings.[vi]

Finally, the Gemara presents the third model of spirituality – one which is channeled towards God.  Inherently, the music Elisha listened to was unconnected to a mitsvah; it was a mundane action which he found spiritually uplifting.  However, when he embraced the experience and used it to channel his emotions towards God, it became a religiously meaningful event.  In fact, it was so significant that the Gemara used music as the example to teach the necessary preparatory mindset for experiencing divine revelation.

Along the same lines, there is also an important source in Bereshit which is relevant to our discussion.  Before blessing Esav, Yitshak requested that he “prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessings.”[vii] This story reflects the same mentality – that an enlightened and uplifted emotional state achieved through mundane means can be used to encounter the Divine.  In fact, Rabbeinu Bahya and Rabbeinu Nissim both connect this story to the Gemara in Shabbat and the related story of Elisha in 2 Kings mentioned above.[viii] They explain that Yitshak requested the food to initiate a spiritual experience in order to prepare himself for an encounter with the Divine.[ix]

In this light, it seems from these sources that there is legitimate religious value to spirituality that flows from sources which are independent of Halakhah.  If Elisha and Yitshak utilized “natural” means of achieving a spiritual feeling before they communicated with God, it seems that the common man should be able to utilize and channel such mechanisms to try and achieve spiritual experiences  as well.  If we view Tanakh as our guide, the lesson of these stories seems to be that in the course of searching for spirituality and uplifting experiences, we can use means which, while of course not violating Halakhah,[x] are not technically mitsvot, in order to reach beyond ourselves and try to rendezvous with the Infinite.

Finally, there is one last question that is relevant to this discussion: do we need a source in the tradition in order to legitimize spirituality?  Undoubtedly, having a precedent in Tanakh or the Talmud helps bolster this attitude towards spirituality; but is it really needed?  Can there be a wrong approach to spirituality if it is personal and subjective?  Assuming we are working within the bounds of Halakhah, if someone finds something to be religiously fulfilling, can anyone deny the religious value of that?  In fact, even if we accept the suggestion that the “ideal” approach to spirituality and connecting to God according to our tradition is the more traditional approach of keeping Halakhah and mitsvot, because of the complexities and proclivities of each individual, it seems difficult to suggest that his or her own mode of connecting with God would be illegitimate.  In this vein, I am reminded of a fabulous quotation I heard from R. Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion some years ago (though I do not recall the context): “God is infinite; there must be an infinite number of ways to connect with Him.”

Danny Shulman is a senior at YC and SSSB majoring in Jewish Studies and Accounting and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.


[i] I want to make very clear that I am not condoning the use of drugs.  I am merely analyzing a theoretical question to better understand Judaism.  In this vein, spiritual experiences triggered by activities such as meditation, listening to or playing music, and exercise are all included within the purview of our analysis.

[ii] Shabbat 30b.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Interestingly, the Gemara does call this simhah shel mitsvah.  However, Rabbeinu Hannanel, in both Shabbat and the parallel sugya in Pesahim 117a, leaves out “shel mitsvah.”  Also, Rashi to Pesahim 117a, s.v. “Simhah shel mitsvah,” explains that the mitsvah is one of hashra’at ha-Shekhinah, which means that the mitsvah is an after-effect of the simhah, and not vice versa.

[v] Rashi to Shabbat 30b, s.v. “Simhah shel mitsvah.

[vi] That being said, it is possible that it is also a genuine, religiously spiritual experience.  However, because of the far more pressing considerations of Halakhah, this is wholly unacceptable in the Jewish tradition; Halakhah prevails, even when faced with a competing value, such as spirituality.

[vii] Bereshit 27:4.

[viii] Rabbeinu Bahya to Bereshit 27:5; Rabbeinu Nissim, Derashot ha-Ran, Derashot Sheni va-Hamishi.

[ix] Alternatively, a number of commentators explain that Yitshak was offering Esav a merit so that he would deserve the blessings.  See the commentaries of Seforno, Abravanel and Netsiv.

[x] In light of the opening story, it must be noted that many consider drugs to be forbidden; see, for example, Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3:35. Nonetheless, the social reality we are faced with is one in which people use such substances; thus, encouraging the channeling of such experiences towards God seems to be the best available approach.  However, it seems that the ideal scenario would more closely follow Elisha’s example and use music, or something of that nature, to achieve an uplifted spiritual state.