What Defines a Jew As “Religious”?

Dear Rabanit Cohen,
I was wondering if you could tell me what defines a Jew as “religious”?


Dear Reader,
Thank you for taking the time to wrote and ask such a powerful question. There are two words that are used interchangeably, but really have very different meanings. “Ruchani, spiritual” and “Kadosh, holy.” Ruchaniyut is achieved when you are attaching yourself to spiritual matters, rather than to the gashmiyut of this world. A spiritual person is often selfless, and strives to fill his life with a higher meaning a purpose and tries to see the purpose and goodness in life. But ruchaniyut is limited by one’s own spirit, perceptions, and the self. Someone who does not believe in the existence of a Creator can be a spiritual person. He can be an amazingly good person. He can go as far and as high as his own spirit moves him.

“Kadosh” refers to matters of the divine which has its sanctity directly from Hashem. When we do what Hashem commands, we tap into kedushah. We ascend higher and we connect to the essence of Hashem. For example: when a man puts on tefilin or when a woman immerses in a mikveh, whether they feel spiritual or not, they are tapping into the kedushah of Hashem. Eating on Shabat is a mitzvah; being intimate with our husband (at the right time and under the right circumstances) is a mitzvah. These are mitzvot that connect you to kedushah. Kedushah does not mean abstention; is a means to connect to the Divine world of Hashem.

Ruchaniyut is what you can create within you. Kedushah comes from Hashem.

A Jew who goes to shul on Shabat and davens, recites the kidush over the wine, and make a berachah over challot, may not necessarily feel ruchaniyut when he engages in these mitzvot, but by observing the Shabat in the manner in which Hashem asked, he can become kadosh – because he is connecting to Hashem in the way Hashem wished him to. Now, if that same man decides to burn incense and play music on Shabat to “enhance his spiritual feelings” – he is still violating the laws of Shabat and has now disconnected himself from kedushah.

On the other hand, there is a man who fulfills Hashem’s mitzvot just as Hashem commanded, but he does not attempt to be more spiritual or have love or fear of Hashem. He remains just as materialistic and stiff after doing a mitzvah as he was before doing the mitzvah. Yahadut teaches that these kinds of mitzvot are lacking a soul; they are dead. That is why the Torah commanded us to “choose life.” By spiritually striving to connect with Hashem, we inadvertently breathe life into the mitzvot.

What defines a person as religious? A combination of kedushah and ruchaniyut. A person who strives to fulfill Hashem’s Torah (where he attains kedushah) – but he also strives to find the spirituality in what he is doing. He is not satisfied with the automatic performance of mitzvot. He wishes to connect with the heavens in all his actions.

Remember that Yahadut is an action-oriented religion. Although ruchaniyut and kedushah are important, performance of mitzvot must be added to the equation. The Torah tells us, “Kedoshim tihiyu – be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). It does not ask us to “be spiritual.” But by striving for kedushah, that is, by fulfilling the commandments of Hashem as HE requested, we can ultimately reach the world of ruchaniyut as well.

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