February 26, 1998 / 30 Shevat (Rosh Chodesh Adar), 5758

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Teruma

What is religious emotion?

"When immersed, red-hot iron heats freezing-cold water, but at the same time, it itself becomes progressively colder."
-- Rabbi Israel Salanter

The laws of the Torah are many and in many categories: civil and criminal, ritual and ethical and intellectual. Is there a place for religious emotion? The question arises with the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. The Ten Commandments, encompassing belief and trust in G-d, and the civil and tort law, have been laid down. What role, now, is there for individual religious emotion? Seemingly little, for it is only the elite, the priests, who will participate in the ritual operations of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple.

The 13 raw materials needed for the Tabernacle (and its ritual objects and priestly garments) yield a structure and a ritual of unparalleled pageantry. The 13 materials include gold, silver and copper; turquoise, purple and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins, other skins, acacia wood and precious stones. Eleven of these materials are to be donated by the Jewish people. A donation is termed a terumah, or "portion." The second verse in this portion reads: "Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion; from every man whose heart moves him you shall take My portion" (Exodus 25:2). This verse has been subjected to three classic readings. Each alone is compelling; collectively, they seem to contradict each other.

The first reading is of these words, "Let them take for Me." Note: for Me. Charity and philanthropy are not supposed to be for ulterior motives - for honor or recognition, even for internal satisfaction. They are supposed to be for the service of G-d - entirely altruistic.

The second reading is of one word in the previous phrase and builds on the previous reading. Should not the verse read, "Let them give for Me," instead of "take for me"? People who provide material donations are giving, not taking. The odd use of "take" is to call attention to this: When a person truly gives for G-d, without any ulterior motive, he receives a spiritual gift. The altruistic giver rises in holiness. That is what he takes, that is why the verse reads, "Let them take for Me." The third reading is of these words, "every man whose heart moves him." A person should not give routinely or mechanically. He should want to give. He should be deeply motivated and give with heartfelt feeling.

Note: The first and second readings call for an outer-directed gift - a gift prompted solely by G-d's command. The third reading calls for an inner-directed gift - a gift prompted by inner feeling and emotion. The readings contradict each other. The first two readings call for giving without thought of personal benefit; the third calls for the admittedly non-material benefit of heartfelt satisfaction. This is a contradiction, unless one acknowledges that the gesture toward G-d embraces the heart, that altruism requires inner feeling and emotion.

With this acknowledgement, the readings complement each other. Taken together, they establish the validity of religious emotion. A feeling for G-d, an act of obedience to G-d, or an experience of G-d, that touches the emotions falls under the category of heartfelt giving to G-d.

Religious emotion sometimes prompts religious conviction and is sometimes prompted by it. Religious emotion is almost infinite in its layering and configuration. Here are four quotations, each illustrating a different type of religious emotion.

Religious conviction commingled with tears, by Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1907-1981): When tears well up into weeping, we know why we weep. My tears at this moment, however, surely and surely did not well up now. My tears are old and venerable now, having gathered in the subsoil of the soul now and over time, in their own time. Hidden tears, the soul itself hid them by placing a concealing rock over the entrance to the well of the soul. Across time - their own time - there gathered types of tears, different tears. In this hidden spot of tears there are those of "My eyes dropped streams of water for not having kept your Torah" and of "Extend grace to me, wretched am I" - tears of sharing the sorrows of men, of pitying an orphaned generation, of yearning for the countenance of parents and teachers whom I was privileged to view once upon a time, of yearning for the higher light in blessed hours of engagement with the secrets of Torah, of reciting Song of Songs from out of a mighty sense of their loftiness - tears flowing as water libations upon the altar, the altar of love of G-d, tears of exaltation. All these types of tears, sentenced to hiding across the ages, across years, now coalesced into one unity beneath the concealing rock, and behold! When my fingers just grazed the tombstone of Marahal of Prague (c. 1525-1609), the concealing rock on my breast split to smithereens and my tears came gushing, like a waterfall cascading downward between clefts in the rock.

Religious conviction commingled with fear and trembling, by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883): Man is free in imagination, but fettered in intellect. His imagination leads him wildly by the heart of his desire, dauntless in the face of the certain future, the time when G-d will bring visitation on all his actions, when he will be chastised by severe judgments, no other will be taken captive on his account, he alone will bear the fruit of his iniquity, he is one, who commits the crime and who is penalized for it. How bitter, man cannot say this is my sickness and I will endure it. The earthly afflictions are lesser, vastly so, over against sin's punishments; the soul of man will loathe in full measure, a day will be reckoned as a year. Woe to the imagination, this evil enemy, it is of our own hands, it is in our power to make him remote. Upon our lending an attentive ear to the intellect, to seek fruitful, rational insight, to evaluate a sin's gain as against its loss; but what are we to do, the imagination is a flooding stream, and intellect will drown, unless we guide it in a ship, namely, the stirring of the soul and the rousing of the spirit.

Religious conviction commingled with loneliness, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993):

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in G-d's companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by G-d, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic-harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.

All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu the son of Berachel of old who said, "I will speak that I may find relief"; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing."

Religious conviction commingled with prayer - emotions of my own: Nine is not enough and ten thousand are no different from ten. When 10 gather to pray, a metaphysical entity is created - an embodiment of the entire body of Israel - a minyan. Strange, this minyan. If it embodies the entire Jewish people, who is the minyan existing simultaneously in the next room, next synagogue, city or country? Can there be two embodiments of the entire people? I see it this way: Any ten Jewish males, wherever they are, whoever they are, have the power to constitute a microcosm of Jewish eternity - of Jews now, Jews everywhere, of Jews past and future. To step into a minyan is to step into the eternity of the Jewish people. This is why certain prayers, which emphasize eternity, may be recited only in a minyan; why the Bible, the record of G-d's eternal will, may be read publicly only in a minyan.

In Israel, there is an additional prayer recited only with a minyan: the priestly blessing. When I am in Israel, I stand, daily, to recite this blessing, given the ancestry of my father and his father and his, stretching all the way back to Aaron, the High Priest of Israel. I sometimes wonder what my fellow priests think as they recite Aaron's blessing. Do they think, as I do, about its mystery, about how it cannot occur without us, yet has no meaning except as it transcends us? Do they think, as I do, about the prohibition of reciting the blessing with an individual in mind - about the command to love and bless all the people? Do they think, as I do, about our common identity with the ancient Temple and the pageantry of its promised restoration? Do they think, as I, that with its restoration the resultant minyan, embracing all priests and commoners alike, will be the macrocosm, the body Israel - that in spirit we are already there?

Translations from Hebrew:
R. Hutner: © 1989, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, from Between Berlin and Slobodka:Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe.
R. Salanter: © 1982, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, from Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea - The Ethics and Theology of an Early Psychologist of the Unconscious.


Mishpatim: 'Eye for an Eye:' Jewish Justice?
Yisro: Between ten and seven: A spiritual distinction
Beshallah Shira: Undisputed symbols of unity
Bo: Who rules? Man or G-d?
Vayera: The summoning of courage
Shemos: The paths of the hated
Vayechi: I go myself
Vayyigash: Two types of power
Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg