The distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” – so current – is a false one.

In this dichotomy, “religion” is taken to mean a set of rigid doctrines and/or rituals. This is the “letter” of the “Law.” While possessing an authority based on history or tradition, and an ability to “soothe” through distraction or mechanical repetition, these doctrines/rituals are held to be otherwise without intrinsic power. Implicitly, they are regarded as actually obstructing “personal growth.”

“Spirituality,” on the other hand, is understood as an “experience,” without the limitations of “rules” or “doctrines.” This is the “spirit” of the “Law.”

Where “religion” is believed to obstruct “growth,” “spirituality” is believed to promote it. In our (more or less) secular environment and era, we judge things to be either “good” or “bad” by those criteria.

But the distinction between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the “Law” is mistaken – however benignly. In that distinction, the implication is that we should be in compliance with the “spirit” of the “Law,” rather than with the “letter” of it. In fact, in all religious traditions, the ideal is that we practice their doctrines/ rituals, while infused with inspiration. As an 11th century Jewish author said of prayer: “Prayer without devotion [kavannah] is like a body without a soul.” [1] One who is “spiritual” without being “religious” is practicing as partial a method as one who is “religious” without being “spiritual.”

If “religion” shares concerns for human growth with “spirituality” – because spirituality is itself an aspect of religion – it shares them no less with psychotherapy.  But do “religion” and psychotherapy have the same goals for human growth and development? For that matter, what, in fact, are their goals?

The goal of psychotherapy is for the client to be able to mediate more successfully between his/her own (inner) impulses and (outer) environmental demands. Schools differ on whether this requires him/her to “resolve unresolved conflicts,” or “complete previously uncompleted – or partially completed – developmental tasks,” etc.; methods differ as well, based on the theoretical orientation. But no school of psychotherapy contains a model in which the individual ever achieves final, complete self-mastery. It is, in fact, axiomatic that  “growth” is a never-ending “spiral,” in which old “conflicts” or “tasks” are perpetually revisited, albeit in new or changed contexts, and that any mastery [competence] attained previously is the stepping-stone to the next level of mastery, ad infinitum.

Religion, however, does contain a model that includes the possibility – however hypothetical – that one can reach a level where there is no longer any conflict between “impulses” and “environment”:

“We find in the Gemara five distinct types – a righteous man who prospers, a righteous man who suffers, a wicked man who prospers, a wicked man who suffers, and an intermediate one (benoni)…our sages have remarked that the Righteous are motivated [solely] by their good nature…but whoever has not attained this degree, even though his virtues exceed his sins [i.e. even though he/she be able to mediate between “impulses” and “environment” with uninterrupted success] cannot at all be reckoned to have ascended to the rank of the Righteous (tzaddik).” [1]

The immediate response of a “scientist” to the use of such language as “righteous” or “good” and “wicked” or “evil” is that these terms contain subjective “values” or “judgments,” which are out of keeping with the role and responsibility of a psychotherapist. While this is true at a certain level, it is no less true that the “scientist,” in this case, is applying his/her own value of “objectivity” to the reading of a traditional text, and in doing so, might be missing the intention of the text itself.

[1] Rabbi Bachya ibn Paqudah; Duties of the Heart

[2] Rabbi Sheur Zalman of Liady; Tanya; ch. 1