What is the difference between spirituality and spiritualism?

Spirituality is an awareness of the spirit, of the soul; it is a sensitivity to things beyond the immediate and the material. That’s why some describe the study of spirituality as metaphysics—the study of that which lies beyond the physical.

Spiritualism, on the other hand, is how we describe the practices of dabbling in the occult, Is the Torah encouraging us to be fools?such as trying to communicate with the dead. In ancient times these activities were referred to as sorcery or black magic.

For Jews, spirituality is recommended, but spiritualism is discouraged. In fact, it is actually forbidden explicitly in verses in this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim.

The Torah cautions the Israelites, who were about to enter the Promised Land, from mimicking the heathen and abominable pagan rites of the Canaanites. And after listing these forbidden practices, it adds, “You shall be wholehearted with the L‑rd, your G‑d” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

Now the Hebrew word for “wholehearted” is tamim. It is from the same root as the word tam, which we might recognize as one of the Four Sons at the Passover Seder. The tam is the simple son, who is ignorant and foolish. So why would the Torah use a word here that conveys a lack of intelligence? Clearly, the Torah is not encouraging us to be fools?!

The accepted explanation is that the Torah does not mean “simple” in the sense of unintelligent, but rather “simple” in the sense of straightforward, not overly sophisticated or cynical, but simple and filled with faith in G‑d, with no need to go looking into the dark corners of the universe.

This explanation would help us understand a traditional inscription on many Jewish tombstones: איש תם וישר, ish tam v’yashar, “[Here lies] a simple and upright man.” Would any Questions are kosherchild write an epitaph for a father calling him a fool?! But “simple” in this context does not mean unwise; it means simple and wholehearted in faith. The term is used to praise an upright individual who lived his life with honesty, sincerity and wholesomeness.

This simple person accepts that G‑d alone is the Master of the Universe. He doesn’t try to outsmart his Creator by looking for answers in the wrong places, or by attempting to outwit destiny by consulting the spirits or the stars. If G‑d decided to take his loved one, he does not feel the need to find her somewhere else in the cosmos and communicate with her. He is trusting of the Almighty’s vast eternal plan, and he does his part to advance within the framework G‑d set out for him. He may, in fact, be quite wise, but he’s not a “wise guy.”

The simple and upright person is one who bows his head to kiss a Torah scroll, or the child who kisses every mezuzah he passes. The founder of Chassidism, the holy Baal Shem Tov, taught us that people of simple faith are so special that their prayers can pierce the gates of heaven like no other prayers can.

This quality of simplicity sheds light on an enigmatic sequence in our prayer books. One of the prayers that many people are familiar with is Ein Keilokeinu. Some communities recite it daily, others only on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The words mean “There is none like our G‑d.” Then, in the next line we say Mi Keilokeinu? “Who is like our G‑d?” Now surely we should first be asking, “Who is like our G‑d?” and then be giving the obvious answer, “There is none like our G‑d.” Why do we give the answer before the question?

One famous explanation is that we must first express our simple faith in G‑d: Ein Keilokeinu, “There is none like our G‑d.” G‑d is absolutely unique. Once we have established this fundamental principle of faith, we are then permitted to ask, Mi Kelokeinu? Is there anyone else out there? Are there any other candidates for us to worship and pray to? But the answer is so obvious that we say it outright and up front: Ein Kelokeinu! There is none like our G‑d. Now, you want to ask questions and discuss philosophy? By all means. But first, the principle of faith must be stated and accepted.

Questions are kosher. In the same Passover Seder where we find the tam as one of the Four Sons,we You want to ask questions and discuss philosophy?also have the Four Questions. The Talmud is filled with questions and arguments, propositions and rebuttals. But we ask questions, not to challenge, but to better understand. We start with the premise of belief, and then ask questions with simple humility, and with sincere, wholehearted and genuine faith and trust in G‑d.

Let us be simple, not sly. Let us be simple people, not scheming politicians or spin doctors. Let us all be simple, straight, honest and genuine, so that one day they will say of us, too, “Here lies a simple and upright person.”