What is the meaning of the phrase, a religious experience? The accepted definition is that the religious experience is an emotional link between a person and G-d.
A. The Religious Experience – The Critical Approach
In the spiritual world, it is common to discuss the “religious experience.” What is the meaning of this phrase, exactly what is a religious experience? The accepted definition is that the religious experience is an emotional link between a person and G-d. An additional definition (which somewhat contradicts the first one) is that only a “religious soul” has the ability to feel a religious experience. In other words, the souls of religious people are different from those of normal people in that they can sense special experiences. This has even gone so far as to define a scientific “quasi-evolutionary” explanation of the creation of a religious person. Just as in the past the “homo erectus” (upright man) was created and then “homo sapiens” (wise man), so at one point a development of the human soul appeared which created the “religious experience” together with “homo religiosus” (religious man).
The concept of a religious experience is problematic, first and foremost because for people who are not religious it can serve as a way to escape from the struggle with the meaning of religion. If religion is merely an experience that some feel and others do not, there is no real need to refute the claims on which it is based – such as the existence of G-d, revelation by G-d to mankind, and so on. This is a personal issue which is relevant only for those people who lived through the experience, but the world of religion is not relevant for anybody who has no feel for these events.
In addition, when the discussion of religion is focused on a description of the religious experience, the mitzvot become a spiritual need and they do not apply to significant realms, such as society, justice, communications, government, as so on. This can be compared to the way the army defines the role of the chaplains, as a “department for the purpose of supplying religious needs.” That is, some specific people have a need, they lack something, and it is necessary to find the proper way to fulfill their needs, in the same way that a person with diabetes should be provided with a regular supply of insulin. This definition stems from the liberal approach, which feels that religion is a personal need within the realm of the general needs of citizenship and not something which is different in its very essence.
B. The Religious Experience – The Religious Approach
As opposed to the above viewpoint, the religious definition views a religious experience as a type of revelation, seeing it as a basis for contact between man and G-d. Judaism rejects in principle any attempt to base the contact with G-d on the religious experience as it is usually perceived, and in this way it stands out as being different from the other religions. The reason is (as will be expanded below) that in the end any religious experience is merely an emotional expression of the fact that man wants to find a route that leads to G-d. This emotional expression can appear in many different ways: as a musical experience, as a sudden inspiration, as imagination, as fear, as a lifting of the spirit, or as any one of dozens of other spiritual effects. But in the end all of these manifestations are nothing more than human creations, and a human being cannot use them as a basis to go beyond human existence and encounter a transcendental deity. He can only meet with himself.
In a similar way, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal tried to define prophecy: a phenomenon where a human being speaks to G-d. But according to the Jewish concept this is a link which is not initiated by man but only when G-d turns to man. Therefore, as opposed to Pascal’s opinion, the definition of prophesy according to Judaism is: a situation where G-d speaks to man.
C. The Momentous Events at Mount Sinai and the Sin of the Golden Calf
Why is it that the communication between G-d and man cannot be based on a request by a man to G-d? First, G-d is infinite and man is limited. In order to form a link with somebody else it is necessary to have some ability to take hold of him and to stand up in front of him, but when the infinite is involved this is impossible. Therefore, the only way for a link to be established is if the Creator – who can do whatever He pleases – initiates a contact with a man. It is true that “faith” is a common human trait that is embedded within the human soul, but that faith is not referring to faith in G-d, that is, to a transcendental being, but rather faith in idol worship, in the gods. This is true because idol worship is a deep, religious, and serious relationship with natural forces that exist within the world and not outside it. The concept of “revelation” is not natural to a human being at all, because the typical human being finds it hard to accept that a transcendental deity that is beyond the physical world is at all interested in his actions.
This idea is expressed by the fact that the formative experience of Judaism is the momentous event at Mount Sinai. The unique element of this occasion is that G-d turns directly towards man, who stands by and is a passive listener.
In addition, communication with G-d must be initiated by Him because when a man tries to initiate the contact by the use of a personal experience, he will tend to become attached to the experience itself and to see it as a manifestation of G-d – and this in itself is an act of idol worship.
As an example, let us analyze the sin of the Golden Calf. After the giving of the Torah, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and remains there for forty days. Until this point, Moses had been the responsible factor in the link between the nation and G-d – the one whom G-d chose to bring His word to the nation. But when the people see that Moses is delayed and does not come down from the mountain, they begin to search for an alternative means to provide them with a link to G-d. Based on its own religious experience, the nation creates the Golden Calf as a replacement for Moses (“Make a god for us… for this man, Moses… we do not know what has happened to him…” – Exodus 31,1) and as a way to maintain contact with G-d. However, we should note that the people immediately describe the calf – which is an expression of the religious experience through which they want to be linked to the deity – using G-d’s name: “This is your G-d, Israel.” From a philosophical point of view, only after the subjective character of the recognition and the experience is recognized is it possible to discuss contact with the object itself, with the hidden aspects of it. This is reminiscent of the statement by Nicholas Malebranche (a French philosopher, 1638-1715): “It is impossible to find G-d unless you have lost Him first.”
D. Revelation as a Source for the Experience
Religious experience does have a role to play, but not as the source of contact between man and the deity. Rather, it is a consequence of the experience. In other words: a true religious experience is possible only if it comes after a Divine revelation which precedes it.
Let us take another look at the sin of the Golden Calf. This sin occurred while the nation was waiting for the Ten Commandments and the concept of the Tabernacle – that is, they waited for an object and a place through which the religious experience could be fulfilled. For that reason, after the giving of the Torah G-d admonishes the children of Israel: “You saw that I spoke to you from heaven. Do not make gods of silver together with Me” (Exodus, 20, 18-19). According to the commentator Rashi, “the purpose of this is to issue a warning about the Cherubs… that they should not be made out of silver.” This is a truly startling concept. It is a command about the labor of building the Tabernacle, but it is based on the idea that the Cherubs (on the cover of the Holy Ark) are an example of “a G-d made of gold” – and it is therefore forbidden to make them out of silver! And Rashi continues with his commentary in the same vein. “And do not make gods of gold for you (Exodus 20,20) – do not decide to make Cherubs in your synagogues and houses of study…” That is: the prohibition of making “gods of gold” is meant “for you” – in the synagogues but not in the Tabernacle. In another place, we have been taught that when the Children of Israel heard the command, “Do not make gods of gold for you,” they immediately thought about making a Golden Calf, since in the end they were in fact commanded to make a “deity of gold.”
If the religious experience of “a deity of gold” is a positive thing, what was the sin of the children of Israel? The Torah explains this in the portion of “Ki Tissa,” after the description of the sin of the Golden Calf: “And Moses returned to G-d and said: Please, this nation committed a grave sin, and they made for themselves a golden idol.” (Exodus 32, 31). Instead of creating a “deity of gold” based on the word of G-d and in the name of heaven, they made something “for themselves” – based on their own self image and for themselves. If they had only waited for the revelation and the command that it included, their religious experience would have been performed precisely as it should have been, and it would have taken place in the name of heaven. In other words – revelation is what initiates a religious experience, and it therefore has the ability to form a precise guide of the proper emotional response to what has taken place.
The result of these considerations leads to a gap between the image of the Golden Calf and that of the Cherubs. It is written, “They created a calf at Horeb and bowed down to a mask. They replaced their glory in the form of a grass-eating ox.” (Psalms 106, 19-20). The children of Israel replaced their “glory” – their human image, which should have been embodied in the Cherubs – by an “image of an ox” which was characterized as a calf.
For a deeper insight we can say that the religious experience that is embedded in the image of an ox is enslaved to nature, since the ox is one of the strongest of the living creatures. The verse purposely chooses to characterize the disgraceful nature of this act through the way the ox eats – “in the form of a grass-eating ox.” In the way it eats – by lowering its head to the food source – the ox continuously demonstrates its subordination to nature. On the other hand, the more precise experience of the Cherubs is related to the human image and to the advantage of mankind over nature. The glory of mankind is shown by the fact that he picks up his food and brings it to his mouth.
E. Prayer as an Act of Standing before G-d
Let us look at prayer and the religious experience that accompanies it. One of the great difficulties of a person who wants to pray today is related to the instructions by the sages: “Know before whom you are standing” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 2). How is a human being able to know before whom he stands if he has never met the Creator of the World? Actually, at the time of the Bible, anybody who prayed to the Holy One, Blessed be He, was almost always a prophet, because the prophets indeed fully understand before whom they are standing. In fact, the first place in the Bible where prayer is mentioned is also the first place where the description “a prophet” appears, and the two elements are related to each other. The Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded Avimelech to return Sarah to Abraham, telling him: “And now, return the woman to the man, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live” (Genesis 2, 7). That is: since Abraham was a prophet, his prayer would be accepted.
Thus, prayer is a situation where a man stands before G-d and speaks to Him. Prayer is an extension of the phenomenon of prophecy and an integral part of it.
But this then leads to another question – how are we able to pray today even though we are not prophets? The Talmud notes that the “Anshei Knesset Hagedola” who wrote the prayers sat together with the last prophets (according to one version, a total of thirty-eight prophets). Evidently, as it became known that the phenomenon of prophecy was coming to an end, there was a fear that the ability to pray would also be lost, since the channels of prophecy and prayer are linked to each other. It was therefore necessary to compose a text for prayers that included the intentions and the methods of prayer that were known to the prophets.