Universal Awakening

Religion and Spirituality

What is Religion For?

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

What is Religion For

There are two attitudes regarding the function of religion on the spiritual journey of the soul. The first sees all religious discipline as a vehicle to bring us to the great realization... The second attitude is illustrated by an analogous parable from the Hasidic master, the Maggid of Mezritch.2 He says it like this: one wears all sorts of travel clothes on the way to the capital and the palace of the king. But, once you arrive there, you take out your best raiment and dress yourself to see the king in your finest apparel.

There are two attitudes regarding the function of religion on the spiritual journey of the soul. The first sees all religious discipline as a vehicle to bring us to the great realization. As the Buddha would have it, the "raft" can be discarded after crossing the river. Or, as Sri Ramakrishna1 has said it: if you are invited to meet the king in the palace, you travel in a carriage and your entire retinue comes with you. But once you come to the palace, you leave everything outside and enter alone to meet the king.

The second attitude is illustrated by an analogous parable from the Hasidic master, the Maggid of Mezritch.2 He says it like this: one wears all sorts of travel clothes on the way to the capital and the palace of the king. But, once you arrive there, you take out your best raiment and dress yourself to see the king in your finest apparel.
Though these two points of view are diametrically opposed on one level, both are of the opinion that all religion is but preparation for the moment of truth in which the soul encounters God. The far-eastern mode would have us discard discipline-after-discipline the closer we come to the true union. It sees in the continuation of discipline a barrier, and after the great encounter, it is only so much excess baggage that is best discarded.

The Maggid's parable brings out the view that one who is farther away from the great encounter can afford to have less discipline, but the closer one comes to the King, the more "courtly manners" one must display. "Those in God's immediate environment must be meticulous to within a hair's breadth," states the Midrash ("commentary") on Psalm 50: 3. This Midrash tells us that people who are still very far away from the encounter do not have their actions scrutinized, but the closer one gets to God, the more meticulous one needs to be in observance and holiness.

The redemptive process of the spiritual path works to redeem the soul from external and extraneous disciplines. The closer one comes, the less is needed from the outside. When one is raised to the rung of a tzaddik ("righteous one," saint, spiritual master), there is only one precept left --- "The tzaddik shall live by his faith." (Hab. 2:4)

And yet, tzaddikim who have been asked to describe how they shape their life in holiness describe their inner faith practice (in which they take all responsibility before God) in terms of the most detailed minutiae. This is not due to an obsession with details, but rather to a possession by God's Presence in which everything is infinitely significant.

In any case, the experience of liberation, insight and realization is seen as a result of a person's intense preparation for that moment which can, in some systems, be seen as a reward for intentional holiness, or in other systems, as a function of God's pure and underserved grace, for which the saint has prepared fine and exquisite vessels to contain so great a gift.

There is still another function, perhaps more important, in the prescriptions of religion: guiding us back to the high moment of realization. Consider the saint, the sage, the realized one who meets the moment when s/he dies to self in the great encounter and then is reconstituted by God's creative will and grace to be the person s/he was, in the same body and with the same basic qualities. S/he knows at this moment that "as it was in the beginning, so it is now and forevermore." And yet, s/he will have to serve God even from the point to which s/he has descended. So holy was the experience, and yet so fleeting that at the moment s/he says "yes" to God --- "Yes, I will work for the establishment of Your Kingdom; yes, I will do and obey" --- at this very moment an amnesia begins to set in, part of the vision is lost, and the saint knows that s/he will have to find all sorts of ways to re-member her/himself (to attach her/himself again to the great Self). So s/he seeks out methods by which s/he can recall the holy moment when s/he was truly in touch with the sweet and holy grace, the brilliant and searing truth, the panoramic and infinite view of the Holiness.

As s/he returns to the community with whom s/he shares her/his life, these reminders become part and parcel of the community's way of life, acting as windows to the infinite light.

The purpose of holy days is to reach certain aspects of the high, holy moment (which is itself in eternity, an all-at-onceness in the divine realm) as a community celebration. The upper and lower worlds are connected by a flow of energy. Holy days have been instituted by tzaddikim (and what is the tradition but the transmission of generations of tzaddikim?) to be a holy calling-together of time, person, place and word. The tzaddik fully realizes that aspects of the holy moment can be reached at certain times in the cycle of life here below when s/he and the community celebrate this or that aspect of the divine realm.

In this manner, rituals, prescribed actions, thoughts, words, prayers, meditations and books are ways to contact the higher realm. The father who circumcises his son is put in touch with God's will, with Abraham's experience, and with the experience of his own ancestors. There is immense power in the chain of experiences thus forged. A flowing together of cosmic dimensions occurs. Sparks of chaotic energy are freed from their randomness and redirected through the commandment, intention and performance into the blessed realm of cosmic significance.

  1. Excerpted from Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for Here and Now (B'nai Or Press, 1982) and re-edited by Netanel Miles-Yepez in 2005.
  2. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, an Indian yogi and saint of the nineteenth century.
  3. Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid ("preacher") of Mezritch, disciple and spiritual heir of Ba'al Shem Tov.


You may contact Reb Zalman at: info@neveikodesh.org

updated: 11 years ago