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What Is Spirituality?

What Is Spirituality?

Elusive Yet Vital

 ©Claudia Ravel
©Claudia Ravel

The simple answer is that spiritual is that which is not physical. Which doesn’t help us much, unless we can define “physical.”

Some people will tell you that “physical” means anything they can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. That’s problematic. I can’t perceive radio waves with any of my five senses—or any other form of electromagnetic energy outside of the light spectrum. Does that mean that my phone calls are being transmitted by spiritual means, and my microwave oven is cooking using spirituality?

On the other hand, I can see a rainbow. Is a rainbow physical? Are colors physical? Are the colors that appear to the eye by optical illusion (such as the green band that appears when blue and red are placed contiguously) physical?

Perhaps a better definition of physical, then, is that which can be given discrete measurement. We can’t see radio waves, gravity or nuclear forces. We can’t hear infrasound (sounds at very low frequencies) or ultrasound (sounds at very high frequencies). We can’t feel thin air with our sense of touch. But all of these can be measured, at least theoretically.

Spirituality is that which eludes discrete measurement.

“Spiritual,” then, is that which eludes discrete measurement. Have you ever tried to rate degrees of love? Or precisely categorize an idea? We can see the symptoms and effects of all of these, even measure those to a degree, but we cannot measure emotions and ideas themselves. Not because we do not have the tools, but because they inherently elude measurement. They are among those things that, sociologists and psychologists bemoan with exasperation, “count the most, but can’t be counted.”

If you are reading this, you are probably alive. Life is inherently elusive. When we say something is alive, we mean just that: it will not be the same this moment as it was the moment before. It is constantly eluding definition, transcending itself. A plant is alive because it grows. An animal is yet a higher quality of life, because it moves about deliberately, by its own reason. A human being is yet more elusive, escaping his or her own self through communication with others.

It is for this reason that the most common metaphor for the spiritual is light. Of all the physical phenomena, light is the most elusive. We don’t see light—we only see the objects off which it reflects. We can’t grasp it in our hands, hear it with our ears, taste it or smell it.

Light is our closest physical metaphor for the spiritual.

Most fascinating, even our best technology is incapable of providing a perfectly discrete measurement of light. Quantum mechanics, perhaps the most successful physical theory ever developed, determines that it is impossible to provide both the position and velocity of a photon of light (or any particle of energy). Not because we don’t have good enough tools to do so, but because that measurement simply does not exist. A photon of light has a discrete velocity without a discrete position, or a discrete position without a discrete velocity, but it does not have both.

Light, we must say, is still physical. But it’s the closest we get in our common experience to a spiritual form.

Is spirituality scientific?

If spirituality is such an essential element of the human experience, why is it that contemporary science appears to ignore it (some scientists will even deny that there is such a thing)?

Modern science is all about those things that can be measured. We haven’t yet developed tools to deal scientifically with those things that elude measurement. That creates major problems for us, because attempting to understand the universe with tools that measure only quantities but not qualities is extremely limiting.

We can speak of time in metric terms. But what about the quality of the flow of time as a human being experiences it?

We can speak of colors in terms of frequencies of light waves and their combinations, but that is still quite distant from the human experience of color, which changes throughout the day according to mood and other factors.

We can speak of neurons transferring data to be electrochemically imprinted in our brains. But what about the experience of perceiving that image in our mind? What about the “qualia” of human consciousness? How can we possibly begin to say we understand the universe we observe, when we have no scientific way to discuss the act of human observation? How can we say we understand anything at all, if we find in it no relationship to the inner experience of being human?

The things that count the most are those that can’t be counted.

Although we don’t know what spirituality is, we all experience it constantly. The deep knowledge we do have of the spiritual is through those special individuals who are capable of vivid experiences of that which eludes the rest of us. We can compare these experiences to one another, analyze them, and attempt to construct our ideas from them.

The Kabbalah contains much of this discussion, and the classic Kabbalists developed rigorous systems by which to study these ideas. The Jewish tradition, similar to that of science, is tightly accumulative, slowly and carefully building upon the confirmed knowledge of the past.

At some time, perhaps in the near future, we will find ways to include the non-physical within scientific study. Until then, it would be foolish to believe that that which cannot be counted simply doesn’t count.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Claudia Ravel obtained a computing degree from the Buenos Aires University, in Argentina. Then she studied drawing, painting and art history at the workshop of great masters in art. She studied Art Therapy and scenography. Many collectors, from Argentina and throughout the world, particularly Japan, Israel, France, Canada and the United States own Claudia Ravel paintings. Ms. Ravel has had more than 50 solo and group shows in Argentina from 1989 to 2011, having also participated in art fairs in her native country and abroad, receiving important prizes and distinctions. View her work at
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Womiegha Ebenezer Shalom November 29, 2016

Awesome And educative Reply

Malachi H Denver May 13, 2016


Good article. Reply

gene Hot Springs May 3, 2016

Awesome ! Rabbi
This is a now clear articulation i had questioned in scientific discourse.
the spiritual is the most real element of life causing influence over the physical even in the study of personality and psychology.
thank you Reply

Anonymous USA February 25, 2013

Summary "Spirituality is that which eludes discrete measurement." Spirituality only eludes measurement when one's consciousness functions at a lower level. As a person grows spiritually, perception changes and what appears invisible to low consciousness frequencies is visible at higher levels of consciousness. At higher levels, human thoughts and stored memories appear as physical tangible objects.

"Light is our closest physical metaphor for the spiritual." Higher consciousness, when perceived from a lower level of consciousness, is perceived as light. Just as Neals Bohr described the attributes of electrons moving from an outer orbital to an inner orbital around the nucleus gives off a photon, consciousness reaching down from a higher level to a lower level is perceived by the light it radiates. Thus the phrase "God is Light" is a true statement, based upon limited human perception. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 24, 2012

Rick, very smart answer to my question! OK, this I can believe. Reply

Rick Asensio Leura, New South Wales, Australia April 22, 2012

The good angel and the bad angel I have always and will always believe that EVERY human baby is born perfect.
It's what occurs after birth especially in the formative years of life that programs a person to ascend to goodliness or evil-deeds and thoughts.
When a person arrives at an age and state of exercising free-will and responsibility it is very much that of the good angel and the bad angel on either shoulder that will extol the person for good thoughts and deeds, hence leading the person onto the righteous path or by accepting and extoling the person for bad thoughts and deeds and encourging them on a path of badness an possibly evil (this generated from the person itself...but at times fueled by those and circumstances around them).
For these latter people we must try to show a better way of living by example and good thoughts.
And we must pray....because the world has not got a prayer without yours!
May we all try to open our hearts and let the warmth of G-d's love in every day in many ways. We must try. Reply

Julie UK April 21, 2012

reincarnation/rebirth Take a pea fresh from the pod - it is pea and only pea but put it in the hot-pot and it takes on the flavours of hot-pot. Where did the atoms come from to make pea? The soil, which is a soup of many creatures and plants reconstituted into good rich earth. Take a pea and plant it in the soil it will grow from the nutrients of all that makes up soil. A whole pea tree will grow and many pods with many peas. What was, is and will be exists simulaneously. Form is empty. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 20, 2012

OK, look at it graphically. By the way, Bob, you didn't answer my question. You only asked another one. Here is my answer. We are not born with a yetzer hara if it is true we are made in G-d's image, since he has no yetzer hara, correct? I would rather die in my sins than be the cause of a little tiny baby having to take my imperfections into him or herself and live with my weaknesses and follies. That is the most selfish of wishes, to come alive again in someone else's body in order to reclaim your soul's worthiness. I would never ask my loving G-d to cause pain to another person; particularly, a little baby. Reply

Bob Rabinoff Fairfield, IA April 19, 2012

Reincarnation The human is born with a yetzer hara, an evil inclination, and with certain tendencies, specific to that soul, that need to be refined and directed to Gd's service. That's that person's specific tafkid/mission in life. If he finishes, good. If not, he gets to try again.

If you believe in a loving Gd Who only wants the best for us, how can you reconcile that with a belief that you only get one chance at life and if you're one of the "99%" that doesn't become a complete righteous person, or is not capable of doing complete t'shuvah, repentanca, then he's condemned to an eternity of punishment? Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 19, 2012

For those of you who believe in reincarnation, how, then, do you explain a human baby being born without sin? Reply

Julie UK April 15, 2012

emotional spirituality... the process of converting the energy invested in greed into love, hate into compassion and delution ("self"ishness) into wisdom. This is the work of eternity for all beings. Reply

Anonymous budapest, Hungary April 12, 2012

how about emotions Do you consider emotions as spiritual?

hate, love, greed, fear,.... how to measure those? Reply

Rick Asensio Leura, New South Wales, Australia September 5, 2011

Spirits I absolutely believe in the concept and reality of what we describe in hebrew as that of gilgul.....the transmigration of souls.
I find it difficult that in mainstream Jewish life this is not more taken as a truth.
We are commanded to prepare a place which is fit for G-d to dwell in.... this, indivually takes many aeons to complete.....more than one or two life forms. Wherever they may be or in whatever form they may take,
spirits are not bound by colour, human form, animal form or by residence on this planet Earth.
This is what the Holy Torah has taught me. Torah is the vehicle to unlocking all the universe! Level after level after level. Reply

Anonymous hayward, wisconsin September 2, 2011

the speed of light the speed of light is only a theory, not a fact, who knows if light is fast or slow, we only see it when it shines on something blocking its path. but who of us can ride the speed of light, or out run it, we do not have the science to understand this, yet as the statement says ( it eludes us) is light a spiritual experience? the sun and the moon display exhibits of G-d's glory, the sun shines on everything, and there is very little that can hide from it, the moon reflects the glories of G-d in which it shines at night, but the stars reflect mostly what we cannot see, except that there is something blocking the lights path, but everything encounters light, and there is nothing hidden from it. can light be spiritual? i think so. it reveals the darkest things in our hearts, and reflects the beautiful things about us and around us. there is no real measure of light speed, its all G-d's glory that you will see. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA September 1, 2011

A slight difference of opinion re: wording. Rabbi, you said, " The Jewish tradition, similar to that of science, is tightly accumulative, slowly and carefully building upon the confirmed knowledge of the past." I would change the word KNOWLEDGE to theory or hypothesis or ideas. Knowledge implies that which CAN be measured. Your other ideas have impeccable logic. Reply

Jacob Largo, Florida August 29, 2011

the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: It is my understanding that the THEORETICAL construct known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle only appears to be reality because of our current understanding. Indeed, I would argue that quanta are absolutely quantifiable outside the realm of our average experience—ESPECIALLY from the Throne! However for us, I believe such will remain elusive to our understanding until we can quantify thought. It is our thoughts that regulate our existence, and thus our observations of the world around us. Our thoughts are powerful, and very tangible. With them we can create—with limitations—many wonderful things, such as art, music, complex theoretical constructs, etc.; we can motivate multitudes; even cause self-paralysis due to irrational fear[s]. I believe through our thoughts we can manipulate our surroundings—hence, why observations appear as they do. Until we understand the dynamics of this gift, we will be stuck with Uncertainty. Then again, we may not be allowed to while we are here ... Reply

Ms. Channah Ussery August 28, 2011

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Wikipedia states:
"In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states precise inequalities that constrain certain pairs of physical properties, such as measuring the present position while determining future momentum of a particle. Both cannot be simultaneously done to arbitrarily high precision. In other words, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known."

I just had to know! ;-) Reply

Bob Rabinoff Fairfield, IA/USA August 19, 2011

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Shaun, R. Freeman and I are going back and forth on this and hopefully there'll be a longer response soon, but in a nutshell: A photon can never be at rest -- it always travels at the speed of light. Therefore it has a well-defined speed, but no position at all. A particle that has a rest mass (e.g. an electron) can have a position and a velocity. Since the particle is actually a wave, and not a little ball of "stuff," its position and its momentum are not specified. There is an inherent lack of specificity in both those measurements. The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle (a better translation is the "Principle of Unspecifiability") states that there is a minimum value of the product of the spread in position times the spread of momentum. The more closely you measure one, the less closely you can measure the other. But this is inherent in the wave nature of the phenomenon; it is not a function of our poor experimental technique! Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA August 18, 2011

Some spiritual aspects of life are... Not understandable. At all. Reply

Shaun Cohen Naples, Florida August 18, 2011

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Your paragraph on this is unclear. Does a photon not have both discrete velocity and discrete positioning or do we have, thus far, the inability to measure both at the same time? The theory states that there is an inverse relationship between the velocity of a photon or electron and it positioning so that we, currently, have no way to determine both at the same time. I do not believe the principal speaks to what is actually happening at the quantum level but rather that we just have no way of knowing; the observer cannot be removed from the observation. You may have been saying this very thing but it is unclear. The second to last sentence of the paragraph could be read as regarding our ability and last sentence about what is actually happening at the quantum level. I think you mean to assert something about what is actually happening but that is not what Heisenberg is speaking to. Reply

The landscape of classic Jewish thought is painted with a finite set of themes and motifs...
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