To be religious is to be a halachic poet

The author says that religion is first a spiritual awakening that is respected through traditional observance.

Hoshana Raba is celebrated at the Western Wall in 2013. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Hoshana Raba is celebrated at the Western Wall in 2013.
Few of us are aware that Jewish observance and our dedication to Halacha do not make us religious Jews. They are departures, but never arrivals. Much hard work is needed before one gets a sense of what it means to be genuinely religious.
And most of us will never make it. That in itself is not a tragedy. The tragedy is when we do not even strive to get there but live a life of religious mediocrity, convincing ourselves that since we go to synagogue and are very meticulous about every halacha, we are therefore religious. In no way should we look down on these commitments; after all, they are most important. But integrity demands of us to admit that these things alone do not make us religious.
The same is true about our rabbis.
They may be great halachic authorities, but whether or not they are men of God will depend on factors that far surpass the world of classic Halacha. Only when they incorporate those factors into their halachic lives can we claim that they are gedolei hador, the great ones of the generation.
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To be religious is to experience spiritual moments of such rapture that they cause your body to burst open, liberating the soul that you thought you had lost and restoring it to your body as something entirely new, causing a revolution in your mundane life. Only when that happens can one enter the world of religion and decide on unadulterated Halacha.
There is a technique in writing called word painting. It differs from the way most of us write in that it paints an image in the reader’s mind. It does not merely state a description, such as “the grass was green and the heavens were blue.” Rather, it recognizes that some matters strike us as beautiful not because of aesthetics – when colors match or the symmetry is perfect – but because they make a deep psychological impression on us due to the mood or the value they embody. Word painting uses rich evocative words that accurately portray the images in the writer’s mind. Experiences such as these can mollify many ugly moments we human beings have to endure. Only then can one access religiosity and be ready to give a real psak din, an uncompromised halachic decision.
It was Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the inimitable German poet of Jewish descent, who gave expression to this.
When asked what it takes to compose a single verse, he wrote: “Ah! but verses amount to so little when one writes them young. One ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long and a long life, if possible, and then, quite at the end, one might perhaps be able to write 10 lines that were good. For verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough) – they are experiences.
“For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and things.
One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars – and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories.
One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.
“For it is not yet the memories themselves.
Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
And so it is with the world of Judaism and Halacha. Halacha is the practical expression of discovering the infinite within the finite. To grasp the world of religiosity, or the real essence of Halacha, it is not enough to know all of the Written and Oral Torah. One must also see how the birds fly and the flowers blossom; one must sit by the bed of the dying, watch the stars and have unexpected meetings. Because all of these are a living commentary on the text. Only then, and not a moment earlier, have we entered olam shekulo Torah, a world that is completely Torah. Only then can we have a notion of what it means to be religious and know the art of how to decide on God’s Halacha. 
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books and an international lecturer.