Last week, Yael Valier posted on the differences between spiritual experiences and religious experiences. Yael mentioned that she had not found ice skating moving before but that she found watching this ice dance routine to be a spiritual experience.
I was reminded of Torvill and Dean’s Bolero at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. They were Ice Dancers, while the skaters Yael mentioned were Figure Skaters. This may mean that Torvill and Dean’s routine was more erotic, not just sensual, if there is a difference. Does that make it less spiritual, or more? But as Yael pointed out, a spiritual experience is not necessarily a religious one.
I like to think that the etymological root of religion is the Latin religare, meaning “to bind”. If so, I agree with Yael that if an experience is not engendered by, supported by, or at least associated with a prescribed behavior or set of behaviors, it can be spiritual but not religious. According to that understanding, even if the Kafka story, “Before the Law” energized me to break the inertia in how I am living, it still wouldn’t be a religious experience. The response could be religious—if it happened within a prescribed “religious” framework—but not the stimulus, in this case reading Kafka’s story. Or maybe the initial stimulus can be retroactively deemed to be religious if the response to it was religious. I don’t think so though. I think for a spiritual experience to be religious it needs to have emerged through adherence to a prescribed discipline.
However, I don’t think that religious experience is necessarily any more valuable than spiritual experience which “is not religious” just as I don’t think the Model T Fords which came off the first production line were necessarily superior to the cars which were produced traditionally. The revolution was not in the cars but in the system which produced them.
Similarly, I think a vital part of the defining genius of the Jewish tradition is that it produced an intricate set of observances which, together, create a sort of experiential space which is hospitable to spiritual experience and, to an extent, stimulates it. I think that can be a key to understanding the unique specialness, if not chosenness, of the Jewish People without predicating it on any intrinsic difference—for better or worse—between individual Jews and non-Jews. It’s the operational framework and network protocol they operate under, not the intrinsic “hardwired” nature of the individual that makes the Jewish people collectively different. To put it another way, it’s a software issue, not a hardware issue. To be sure, over generations of the existence of a refined and refining culture, the individuals who live within that culture can become collectively more refined than individuals who live outside it, but that doesn’t have the same “stigma” as the claim that a particular people was singled out at as different at the start and chosen directly by G-d.
In response to my comment that reading Kafka’s story “Before the Law” was a spiritual experience for me, she posted a parable by the Baal Shem Tov on a similar theme. The Kafka story does resemble the Baal Shem Tov’s story. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov’s story also resembles, though to a lesser degree, Rambam’s parable in Moreh Nevuchim III L1 of the King in his palace and the people who come within different levels of closeness to him. I guess the Baal Shem Tov knew the Rambam’s parable and maybe Kafka knew both of them.
However, for me, the power of Kafka’s parable starts where the Baal Shem Tov’s ends; the two parables are mirror images of each other. The prince in the Baal Shem Tov’s parable knows from the start that he is the King’s son and that he has a deep personal connection with the king, and this drives him past all the barriers to fulfilment of what he knows to be his rightful destiny. The man in Kafka’s story feels himself adrift and alone through his whole life—that he has to fight through barriers he is not entitled to pass before he can reach the forbidden place where he will be able to be truly alive and love and be loved. And then, at the end of his life, he sees that he has been standing before a whole world which was created for him, in love, and now it is too late to enter it.
Maybe being moved by Kafka’s parable is a religious experience after all, not because it emerged from adherence to a prescribed set of observances but because it sweeps away the experience of existential loneliness as an inescapable reality to reveal that there is something pretty like a transcendent all-powerful G-d who loves each person as if they were the only person in creation. I think that this understanding may be completely contrary to the one put forward by Rav Solovietchik in The Lonely Man of Faith. There, I think he holds that loneliness is an inescapable outcome of true faith rather than being assuaged by it, but maybe he is speaking about social loneliness more than a pervasive existential loneliness.
One last thought is that Kafka’s story also has a parallel with Shakespeare’s Othello. Although the temperamental weaknesses and the misunderstood characters (G-d and Desdemona) involved are different, maybe the essence of Kafka’s tragedy parallels that of Othello. In the end, Othello realizes who Desdemona was only after he has killed her and it is too late.