(Part 1 can be found here: https://nertamid.net/sermons/defining-spirituality-a-journey-part-1/) 

I remember the precise spot I was sitting. It was in Dutch Wonderland, I was watching a sleeping child while my wife took the kids on rides, and it just clicked. For many years I tried studying the thought of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, for some reason, I could never really penetrate the meaning of his words. I would use translations and commentaries, nothing worked. Until one day it did. I wish I could explain why and how, but all of sudden, Rav Kook was speaking to me. And I can’t stop listening. The poetry, the depth, the novelty; there are passages I read that genuinely leave me breathless.

I wrote in the previous post how Rav Tzadok HaKohein confused me with his discussion of emotions; highs and lows, and how he saw them as a meaningful part of the religious experience. Rav Kook made things even more confusing. He not only described feelings as spiritual, he described all of the arts, literature, music, poetry, artwork as expressions of spirituality.

Where’s G-d? Where’s Mitzvos? Torah? How can a deeply devout Jewish thinker describe these things as spiritual?

So bear with me as we get a little Kabbalistic and describe what spirituality looks like according to Rav Kook:

The Kabbalists believe that there are three levels to the soul. Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama. If you want to think about it visually, you can imagine a great ladder that goes from you, or your soul, all the way up to G-d. Each of us are connected, through our soul, to Hashem. Now imagine that there are actually three ladders attached to one another. The first ladder, the one attached to your soul is called the Nefesh, it is the most physical of the ladders. Attached to that ladder, going higher, is one called Ruach. And attached to that ladder, going all the way to G-d, is a ladder called Neshama.

Says Rav Kook – or at least my understanding of him – when a person is moved by a sunset, by music, by an interaction, by anything at all, their soul climbs up the ladder and stands in the realm of Nefesh, the lowest part of that spiritual ladder. Another way to put it, is that the lowest part of their soul is awakened. That hard-to-define-feeling of being moved by something IS spiritual, but it is the lowest level of our soul that is being activated.  

When a person does a Mitzvah, their soul climbs up to that middle part of the ladder – to that of Ruach, and that too is spiritual. However, one can skip rungs of that ladder. In other words, one can access the spirituality of Ruach without accessing the spirituality of Nefesh. And so, you can have people who do Mitzvos that are rote, lacking in any emotion or feeling. 

The highest level, the ultimate goal is when we climb the ladder properly. When our soul is emotionally moved in the act of a Mitzvah then we reach the top and we experience the spirituality of the highest order, Neshama.

You still with me?

In other words, there is spirituality in those indescribable uplifting feelings we’ve all experienced. And there is spirituality in doing Mitzvot. One is a lower form of spirituality – that of the Nefesh and one is of a higher form – that of the Ruach.

Taking in the beauty of nature, being moved by a Rembrandt, or swept up in a powerful symphony, all of that is spiritual. And we are encouraged to deepen our appreciation for such things as they are the gateway to our soul. It’s a pity that the arts and literature do not get the attention they deserve in many of our Jewish communities. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Rav Kook sent a letter to the founders of the Bezalel School of Art, encouraging them, as he saw in its establishment the flowering of the Jewish soul. Similarly, shaking a Lulav, laying Tefillin, or listening to the Shofar are also spiritual acts. They are after all, what G-d describes as the mediums through which we connect to Him. However, as we all know, sometimes they are lacking in emotion and feeling.

The goal then is to bridge the gap between them. In doing so we actualize every part of our soul and connect to G-d not only through the intellectual and holy act but through the entirety of our existence. “Kol hanehsama t’hallel Kah. My entire soul sings your praise.”

We’ll pull this all together in the next and final post.