The Search for Religious Enthusiasm Among Today's Youth

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





The Search for Religious Enthusiasm Among Today's Youth

Translated by David Silverberg and Ronnie Ziegler


"He called to Moshe, and God spoke with him from the Tent of Meeting, saying..."

Rashi opens his commentary to Sefer Vayikra with the words of Chazal in Torat Kohanim: "All the speeches, instructions and commandments were preceded by a calling of affection." Chazal then continue,

"Perhaps there was a calling as well for the breaks [between parshiyot]? The verse therefore teaches us, 'and God spoke' - there was a calling for the speeches, but not for the breaks. What purpose did the breaks serve? To allow for some space in between one parasha and the next and between one topic and the next. How much more so [that breaks are necessary] for an ordinary person studying from an ordinary person!"

It would seem that this line of reasoning - "how much more so for an ordinary person!" - applies not only to the need for breaks in between topics of study, but also to the affectionate calling to Moshe Rabbenu; this, too, must be introduced into our ordinary world. The Almighty found it necessary to begin each message to Moshe with a loving call - "Moshe, Moshe!" - thus imbuing him with a sense of elevation and of a personal connection to God. Certainly, then, when we ordinary people encounter these same commands, we too need a similar sense of spiritual elevation.

Apparently, Chazal (and Rashi, following their lead) intend here to convey to the following generations the importance of those emotions aroused by the affectionate calling. This accounts for the lengthy discussion in Torat Kohanim, which seeks to prove through detailed textual analysis that this calling preceded all commandments and speeches, and that it was indeed expressed at the burning bush, Mount Sinai and the Ohel Moed.

But we must recall the significance of these callings, together with the emotions and experiences they aroused. "There was a calling for the speeches but not for the breaks." The significance of the call and its accompanying religious experience lies in their facilitating the absorption of the commands. If these callings are not accompanied by speeches and commands, then those very same experiences and emotions will be viewed as an end unto themselves. The danger then exists that these feelings will serve as a substitute for the actual content of God's word and command.

The gemara (Shabbat 10a) refers to Torah as "chayei olam" - eternal life - and prayer as "chayei sha'a" - temporal life:

"Rava saw that Rav Hamnuna was prolonging his prayer, and commented, 'They leave aside eternal life and involve themselves in temporal life!'"

Along the lines of this passage, Rav Kook zt"l wrote the following regarding the spiritual condition of the community in his time (Kevatzim 3:36):

"When one's service is based upon the foundation of emotion and prayer, one must constantly be concerned about falling. For prayer is temporal life, and emotion changes with time. But when it is founded primarily upon the achievement of the intellect and the Torah, then the individual is more secure against falling. For Torah is eternal life, similar to a light that shines constantly. And although it is written, 'Fortunate is a person who always fears' (Mishlei 28:14), nevertheless considerable guarantee and security may be found through the Torah.

Therefore, the weight of Torah must be decisive in one's service of God, in order to give the heart strength and security. But in any case, one should know that no person nowadays can realize any stature if he does not also properly establish his emotions through prayer. In this way, he may rectify his concrete surroundings and will always be in between hope and fear, until a spirit from Above will arise in him and the power of God overcomes him, to the point that his fears have no impact upon him other than goodness and pleasantness, and no weakness or frailty."

Rav Kook here speaks of a concern for decline when one's service of God is founded upon intensifying emotion through prayer. "Emotion changes with time." Logic, by contrast, does not depend upon time or place; the supremacy of the intellect therefore remains in force at all times. It never changes and it does not depend upon fluctuating moods. Not so regarding emotion - even the most exalted emotion is good and significant at the moment it is felt, but one has no guarantee that it will arise again in other times and under different circumstances. Sometimes emotion develops into excitement accompanied by a sense of spirituality and elevation. But this excitement, which a person senses in full force, wears off with the passage of time, until new emotional stimulants are required. The person will once again need external energizers, which are not always available.

According to Rav Kook, then, the best advice is for one to base his service of God primarily on intellectual achievement in Torah study, while placing the appropriate emphasis on emotion and prayer. This combination helps guarantee against regression from one's spiritual state. It is therefore proper to stress the ascendance of Torah-based intellectual reasoning in one's spiritual life. The Torah is eternal life, while prayer is but temporal life.

In relation to his own generation, Rav Kook adds, "But in any case, one should know that no person nowadays can realize any stature if he does not also properly establish his emotions through prayer."

Rav Kook speaks of "nowadays." For us, the "nowadays" of Rav Kook is already past history. One message we may draw from his words is that a person must always consider the "nowadays," in order that things do not become detached from the "here-and-now." Rav Kook asserts unqualifiedly that one cannot achieve any religious level without proper development of the emotions through prayer. This applies tenfold in our times, in light of all the changes that have occurred in the world in general and in the Jewish world in particular, seventy or eighty years after Rav Kook wrote these words.

The need for emphasizing the emotional basis of prayer, to the point of excitement and enthusiasm, expresses itself these days most clearly in the growing popularity of "Carlebach minyanim." Some remarks regarding this phenomenon are in order.

It is worthwhile to first quote the comments of Rav Yehuda Halevi (Kuzari 2:50):

"Just as supplications require thought and concentration, so does joy in God's word and command require thought and concentration, in order that you rejoice in the mitzva itself out of love for He who commanded it. [Through thought and concentration,] you will recognize how much He has benefited you [through giving the mitzvot] - as if you came to His house, as one invited to His table to partake of His delicacies - and you will give praise for this with your mouth and heart. And if your ecstasy in mitzvot rises to the level of song and dance, then these, too, shall be the service of God, and through this, too, you will attach yourself to the divine concept."

The Rambam, at the end of Hilkhot Lulav, writes along similar lines:

"Rejoicing in the performance of a mitzva and in one's love for the God Who commanded them constitutes a supreme act of divine service. Whoever refrains from participating in this rejoicing is deserving of punishment, as it says, '[You will be punished] on account of the fact that you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a glad heart' (Devarim 28:47). Whoever inflates his ego and stands on his honor and becomes important in his own eyes in these instances - is both a sinner and a fool. In this regard, Shelomo warned and said, 'Do not glorify yourself in the presence of the King' (Mishlei 25:6). On the other hand, whoever humbles and makes light of himself on such occasions - he is an honorable, great person who serves out of . David, king of Israel, similarly said, 'And I will yet lower myself more than this, and will be lowly in my eyes' (II Shemuel 6:22). There is no greatness or honor other than rejoicing before God..."

As opposed to this classical approach, Rav Nachman of Breslav, who sought to raise the level of the simple Jew's service of God, preached his whole life about strengthening one's joy through song and dance. This joy is not an EXPRESSION of "devekut" (attachment to God), in the spirit of the classical approach, but rather a MEANS through which one reaches "devekut." (I use the term "devekut" in its connotation among Chassidic and other circles.)

These two approaches bring to mind the comments of the Midrash (Midrash Tehillim 24):

"Any time it says, 'Mizmor le-David,' he would play [his instrument] and then the divine spirit overcame him. [When it says,] 'Le-David mizmor,' the divine spirit would first overcome him and then he would play."

Needless to say, we are very far from the music and divine spirit of King David. Nevertheless, under certain conditions, this midrash may serve as a source for those following Rav Nachman's approach.

If and when song and dance open a person's heart in prayer, deepen his sense of standing before the Almighty Who listens to the prayer of every mouth, enable him to pour out heartfelt words from deep within, and as a result increase the joy in his heart, as it says, "My prayer shall be pleasant before Him; I will rejoice in God" (Tehillim 104:34) - if these emotions result from song and dance, then the words of Chazal regarding "Mizmor le-David" can indeed serve as a source for those who follow Rav Nachman's approach.

What's more, we should never look askance at the genuine ambition in and of itself, the sincere aspiration to approach God through joyous song and dance, even if the results are not realized. Just as the Almighty does not withhold reward for a pleasing prayer, so do we believe that He does not withhold reward for a pleasing aspiration. Without at least this "sincere aspiration," it is difficult to justify the style of these new minyanim, which deviates from the traditional order of prayer, even traditional Chassidic prayer.

Additionally, we must stand guard against those experiences of "devekut" and ecstasy deriving from Eastern religions, which pride themselves in the religious experiences they inspire. The standard-bearers of these experiences are indifferent to the many social problems we face; they have no interest in mending the world, no ambition for justice and uprightness. Their entire world looks inward, focusing on their own religious experiences. These experiences are regarded as an end unto themselves, leading nowhere beyond.

In a powerful passage, Rav Kook writes (Kevatzim, 7:117),

"The foreign, imaginary devekut, whose essence is in opposition to Torah and mitzvot, enlightenment, the way of the world, peace among people, and the development of society - this [pseudo-devekut] draws its strength from the impurity of idolatry... [even if] it seems to a person that he approaches the sacred, that he becomes enthused, that he tastes divine closeness."

We must therefore employ our intelligence to distinguish properly between experiences that derive from the sacred and those springing from alien sources.

It is worthwhile to mention Rav Kook's particular sensitivity to this problem. It may seem sometimes that he was overly sensitive. We read in that same section,

"The separation that exists in the constitution of the soul and the inner state of the emotions between divine devekut [on the one hand] and Torah and wisdom [on the other,] comes as a result of a decline, a result of some element of idolatry that darkens people's eyes and causes darkness in the world."

What is the secret behind the rejuvenation of Rav Nachman's approach and the phenomenon of these ecstatic minyanim specifically in recent years? There may be several possible answers. Certainly, one cannot view this phenomenon in isolation from the worldwide trend of abandoning reason in favor of various forms of mysticism - a religious, cultural and social issue that deserves independent treatment. However, I would like to raise one point related specifically to our community, which, to my mind, characterizes the current generation, particularly the youth. Despite my aversion towards generalizations, I permit myself the use of the term "generation" because we deal here with a remarkably prevalent phenomenon.

We have before us a generation that "does know how to ask." Not just that it does not KNOW how to ask, but it does not even THINK to ask, due to educational indoctrination. Not knowing to ask has evolved as an educational ideal throughout our educational system. Those responsible for the education of the younger generation of the Religious Zionist community felt - both consciously and subconsciously - that developing an ideal of "not knowing to ask" served to guarantee the continuity of Torah and Zionism amongst the youth.

Youngsters, who naturally know how to ask, have learned to restrict their questions to limited contexts, where the questions lack significance and are mainly technical and formal, not existential. Regarding any areas outside these realms, the youth have internalized the educational message that questions are, if not outright forbidden, then at least inappropriate. As a result, a process has emerged whereby a sizable portion of the youth refuses to ask, not because they are afraid to ask, but because that do not know how.

It is accepted in halakhic deliberations in the Beit Midrash that the question-and-answer process does not end with the first answer. After the answer come possible refutations, which in turn trigger other answers, and so on. This process continues until the issue is clarified either with a decisive answer or with a conclusion that "tzarikh iyyun" - the matter requires further elucidation. However, this reasoning process is not employed, for example, in areas relating to Divine Providence in the post-Holocaust era, the rise of the State of Israel, its struggles and ongoing battles. I am not even going to mention our treatment of the Holocaust, for we have entirely pushed it out of our consciousness - but this is neither the time nor the place to deal with this issue. [Ed. note: See Rav Amital's VBM sicha for Asara Be-Tevet 5760 -] In these areas, when we attempt to allow even the slightest room for burning questions, a simplistic, slogan-type answer immediately shuts the door before any further discussion. There is no room even for a conclusion of "tzarikh iyyun!"

There are other consequences to the inability to ask. We believe that our sacred Torah contains messages relevant in every generation. How can this be? Isn't the Torah eternal and forever unchanging, while the generations undergo constant change? This question was addressed by the Chiddushei HaRim, commenting on the verse, "Understand the years of every generation" (Devarim 32:7):

"In every generation and in every period there comes from the heavens a new understanding of the Torah, one which is appropriate for the generation. The tzaddikim in each generation understand the Torah according to what is needed to teach the people of the generation."

Each generation has its tzaddikim, its teachers and rabbis. In order for these leaders to struggle and contemplate until they reveal the new understanding needed for their generation, they must be confronted with their generation's questions and problems, questions asked sincerely and genuinely. Only questions give rise to answers. If a generation does not know to ask, its tzaddikim will not know to respond. (I say this from my own personal perspective, and I assume that many will object. To my mind, however, the very discussion of this question is necessary and important.)

No one can deny that this educational approach showed sign of success in the beginning. Perhaps then it was possible to justify it. Recently, however, we detect widening cracks in this approach. But now would like to speak not of the cracks, and those who fall through them, but rather of theyouth who toe the party line. Many youngsters have recently shown interest in the writings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l. One rosh yeshiva attributes this interest to the fact that these youth "are looking for legitimation to ask questions." Although this is certainly true, they are searching for something else as well: What does Judaism have to say to modern society? For better or worse, the Religious Zionist community today is open to everything going on in the world and expressed in the media - culturally, socially, scientifically, etc. Under such circumstances, it is highly doubtful if an educational ideal of "not knowing to ask" can survive very long.

Undoubtedly, the prophets already raised many questions to which there are no answers. There are other questions that are themselves simple, but the answers to which are complex and are therefore met with great difficulty by ears accustomed to simple slogans. But we must recognize the importance of the very possibility of questioning - and the courage to ask - even when the question remains without an answer. As the old aphorism goes, "A wise question is half an answer." Even the most difficult questions lend greater meaning to one's avodat Hashem, solidify his relationship to Torah and mitzvot, and afford greater depth to his service of God. By contrast, strangling the possibility of questioning leads to a general shallowness in one's service of God.

The danger of habitual and routine religiosity threatens every person and every generation. But in a generation that does not know to ask and thus lacks depth in avodat Hashem, the danger becomes all the more present. There is a particular danger that the inner element of avodat Hashem will be weakened to the point where the emphasis will shift exclusively to external actions; the "duties of the limbs" may completely overwhelm the "duties of the heart."

In such a generation, there is a real danger that the performance of mitzvot will become dry, lacking the "moisture" of spirituality, a sense of fervor and elevation. Relating to Yechezkel's prophecy of the dry bones, the Gemara comments (Sanhedrin 92b),

"Rav Yirmiya Bar Abba said: This refers to people who do not contain the moisture of mitzva, as it says, 'Dry bones - listen to the Word of God!'"

As a result of this "dryness," there is a thirst for something spiritual, something exciting. From here evolves the growing popularity of "Carlebach minyanim," in which song and dance turn into the central foundation of prayer, with the expectation that these will provide a sense of elevation.

Rav Nachman sought to turn his teachings into prayers. Indeed, his student Rav Natan fulfilled this wish, turning dozens of his teachings into prayers. Now, however, the time has come to consider how to turn the prayers back into teachings.


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