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What Defines a Person As Religious?

What Defines a Person As Religious?


In standard Jewish tradition, I will try to answer you by asking another question.

There are two words that are used interchangeably, but really have very different meanings. What's the difference between "spiritual" and "holy"? Spirituality implies an attachment to matters of the spirit, rather than the physical, material world. A spiritual person is selfless, perhaps ascetic, one who strives to imbue his life with a higher meaning, to think of and serve others, not himself, to see the purpose and goodness in life. But spirituality is limited by one's own spirit, one's own perceptions, one's own self. An atheist can be a spiritual person. He can certainly be a good person, a wonderful person. He can go as far and as high as his own spirit moves him.

"Holy" refers to the divine, that which has its sanctity directly from G‑d or is connected with Him. When we do what G‑d tells us, we access holiness. We ascend higher than our own limitations; we connect to the essence of the Almighty Himself. We may not necessarily understand or relate to it, but when a man dons tefillin, or when a woman immerses in a mikvah, whether they feel spiritual or not, they are accessing G‑d. Eating on Shabbat is a mitzvah; conjugal relations (in the right time, under the right circumstances) are a mitzvah. They are holy. Holiness is not connected to asceticism; it is connected to G‑d.

Spirituality comes from man. Holiness comes from G‑d.

A practical example: a Jew may go to synagogue on Shabbat, pray, recite the kiddush over wine, etc. He may not feel particularly spiritual when doing these things, but in observing the Shabbat in the way that G‑d has asked, he is holy. Because he is connecting to G‑d as G‑d wishes. By the same token, he may decide to burn incense and play music on the Shabbat to enhance his spiritual feelings - but by violating the laws of Shabbat, he has strayed from holiness.

On the other hand, you may have a person who fulfills G‑d's mitzvot just as G‑d commanded him, but without any attempt at being spiritual, without love or fear of G‑d, remaining just as materialistic and coarse after the mitzvah as before. Judaism teaches that ultimately such mitzvot are soul-less, dead. The Torah commands us to "choose life." It is the spiritual striving to connect with G‑d that breathes life into the mitzvot.

So, what defines a person as religious? Ideally, a combination of both holiness and spirituality. A person who strives to fulfill G‑d's commandments - thereby being holy - but who strives to find the spirituality in what he's doing. A person who is not satisfied with rote performance of mitzvot, but who tries to connect with the Divine in all his actions. A person who, as part and parcel of his service of G‑d, places others, and "matters of the spirit," over himself and matters of the flesh.

Having said that, you must know that Judaism is first and foremost an action-oriented religion. So while both holiness and spirituality are vital, when push comes to shove we are enjoined to perform the mitzvot. Torah tells us, "Be holy" (Leviticus 19:2); it does not command us, "Be spiritual." Through being holy, ultimately we reach spirituality as well. Therefore - in a much narrower sense, a "religious person" is often defined as one who observes the three "biggies" in terms of holiness: Shabbat, kosher, and family purity.

Chaya Sarah Silberberg serves as the rebbetzin of the Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, since 1975. She also counsels, lectures, writes, and responds for’s Ask the Rabbi service.
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Leah Cleveland March 1, 2017

Great Question I love the question. I would also answer it with a question, although differently. My question would be , "why do we need the word 'religious' at all?" I am not sure this question calls for a definition of spirituality or a definition of holiness. There is a Creator Who Creates so that His Creations reflect back His awesome Oneness and Unity. Whatever "defines a person as religious" certainly is insignificant, so long as we serve Him in every moment with our thoughts, our speech and our actions. We don't need the label and would be best to lose the word entirely. Reply

Anonymous February 27, 2014

fake religiousness? I understand that "acting" religious is different than being and feeling religious and spiritual. Many people i have come into contact with unfortunately mistake the two and misuse the word religious and use it to judge and belittle people who would otherwise not deserve judgement and ridicule. Reply

Anonymous July 20, 2009

religion verses faith religion is for people who do not want to go to hell... spirituality is for people who have been to hell... Reply

fran rogers southfield, mi via July 20, 2009

chaya sora great article... good clarification. Reply

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