“A fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them” Leviticus 10:2


The balance between personal expression and structured ritual has been one of the key tensions in the religious experience. Those favouring the former will stress the importance of authenticity and intention in what one does, questioning the value of simply following a set pattern of observance.

Those favouring structure repeatedly voice concerns about the slippery slope to religious self-indulgence. In the modern period this argument re-emerged between Chasidim and the Mitnagdim of eastern Europe. Today it is echoed in the arguments between traditional religion and some of the forms of New Ageism.

Just how precarious treading the path between these two poles can be is seen in the tragic events surrounding the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, after offering an incense fire not commanded by God. The 18th-century Chasidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizenshk, claims that these two young men were saturated with an ecstatic desire to elevate their physical world to the Divine presence. Rather than being a rebellion against God, it was intended to be the ultimate gift for Him. But it was an exercise that went terribly wrong.

The dangers in this highly individualistic approach are clear. Firstly, even the most noble goals of drawing close to God need to be performed within a certain rubric. Otherwise it may be nothing more than an expression of religious narcissism. Secondly, a great deal of self honesty is required to be sure that these elevated intentions are indeed true, and not a form of spiritual posing.

The Jewish religious experience seeks to fuse commitment to detail and structure with the fire of personal passion.

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