A Jewish woman went to India on what seemed to be a spiritual quest. She traveled a great distance to get to this ashram to see if she could get a meeting with the head guru. The woman was told by the attendant that the guru was a very busy man who spent most of his day in meditation, and that she would have to wait three days to see him and keep the session very short; her question would have to be kept to three words.
Finally the three days pass, the attendant brings the woman into the guru’s chambers where he is deep in meditation. The Jewish woman approaches the guru and, keeping to the three-word maximum, she turns to the guru and says: “Sheldon, come home!”
What is the obsession that Jews have with spirituality? And what is the relationship between spirituality and religion, because as we know, they don’t always go hand in hand: The Pew study reported that one in five Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
An understanding of the sin of the Golden Calf, described in last week’s parsha, can help answer this question. How can we understand the sin? The Jewish people witness the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of Torah at Sinai, and then Moshe fails to come back “on time” and they simply revert to their polytheistic ways? How can we understand this?
Rashi answers that “the desire for idolatry was great.” The tremendous attraction the Jewish people had to idol worship had not worn off and they just succumbed. However, the Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Kuzari wrote that the sin of the Golden Calf was not avodah zarah per se. The Kuzari suggested that the Jewish people needed a place to focus their prayers and thoughts on God, and therefore hoped Moshe would bring down something tangible through which they could direct their hearts. When Moshe didn’t come back, they created that tangible thing on their own. The Ibn Ezra similarly wrote that only a minority of the people believed the golden calf they had fashioned was God. The rest of the nation used it as a means to connect with the one and only God.
So what was their crime?
Because it didn’t come from God. The golden calf was an unauthorized form of worship. But what’s wrong with that?
A few years ago my wife and I went to see the Alman brothers, a great rock band still around from the 1960s. One guitar solo went on for like five minutes, with psychedelic images playing on the large screen and many people in the audience getting high. I bumped into a student of mine after the concert who asked me, “Rabbi, how was tonight’s concert any less of a spiritual experience than praying in synagogue on Shabbat morning?”
I answered that although we may have the ability to know what makes us “feel” spiritual, how can we really know when we are truly connecting to God?
The only way we can know, I said, is if what we are doing to connect spiritually actually comes from God Himself. The Alman brothers may make us “feel” more connected, but the experience in synagogue we believe is connecting us because it is rooted in the Torah, which is an expression of God’s will. The words in our prayer book may not have been written by God but by prophets who spoke with God, by great sages who were connected to God and were divinely inspired.
The word “mitzvah” means commandment. This implies two things: a metzaveh, a commander, and a meztuveh, one who is commanded, but a mitzvah is also something that binds us with God because we believe that it comes from God and not simply something we created to feel more connected. Observing Shabbat may feel good when we observe it, but ultimately we keep Shabbat because we believe it connects us to God—not only because it feels that way, but because it’s an observance found in the Torah, emanating from God Himself.
That is the beauty of following a system that one believes is Divine in nature. It does not depend on how we feel. Our Judaism has validity, whether we feel it or not. This is critical because inevitably there will be Shabbatot that do not move us emotionally, but does that mean we did not spiritually connect? Of course, we should try to always feel that way, but if our faith is based only on our own feelings, then who are we serving?
My teacher Rabbi Dr. Jacob Schacter once shared that a sociologist published a story about a woman named Sheila Larson who described her faith as “Sheilaism”—because although Sheila says she believes in God, she simply listens to her own “little voice.” “My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism,” she was quoted as saying. Rabbi Jacob Schacter jokingly remarked: “If only her name was Judy!”
In my mind, though, it all boils down to humility. Do we really have such insight into our own souls, into our own spiritual selves to know what truly connects us with God and what does not? Do we have such confidence, based on what we may be feeling at a given time, to know what is a religious experience and what is not?
The Torah and its mitzvot are there to inform us what behaviors bring us closer to God and which create distance. That was the sin of the Golden Calf. Our ancestors made the mistake of believing that they themselves could know, from their own feelings, what was truly religious and what was not. That too is a form of idol worship, since ultimately it is the worship of our own selves. We should value and cherish our feelings and emotions but never for a moment imagine that they alone determine our relationship with God or with our fellow man.
May we strive to always find meaning in the mitzvot we perform, to feel something special, but at the same time, know that even if we don’t feel that emotion we are still fulfilling Hashem’s word, and in doing so truly being spiritual.
Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.