William James, in his classic work on the psychology of religion, drills down to the fundamental aspects of authentic religious experience. For James, much of what we normally label as “religion” does not qualify as authentic religious experience:
“In critically judging the value of religious phenomena, it is very important to insist on the distinction between religion as an individual personal function, and religion as an institutional, corporate or tribal product… The word ‘religion,’ as ordinarily used, is equivocal. A survey of history shows us that, as a rule, religious geniuses attract disciples, and produce groups of sympathizers. When these groups get strong enough to organize themselves, they become ecclesiastical institutions with corporate ambitions of their own. The spirit of politics and the lust of dogmatic rule are then apt to enter and contaminate the originally innocent thing; so that when we hear the word ‘religion’ nowadays, we think inevitably of some ‘church’ or other… [which] suggests so much hypocrisy and tyranny and meanness and tenacity of superstition.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature)
The history of communal religion, in James’ perspective, is essentially the same in all cases. What begins as an authentic religious encounter in the heart of the individual religious genius becomes ossified as inflexible dogma in the minds of his followers, who themselves experience religion only “second hand.” Once a community forms, the politics and corruption that are endemic in institutions pervert the original religious experience even further.
Given this dark history of institutional religion, James defines true religion as that “which lives itself out within the private breast.” “Religion,” properly defined, refers only to the lonely experience of the individual believer. “Naked comes it into the world and lonely.”
James’ hyper-individualistic approach to religion – attractive as it is to many modern readers – is profoundly foreign to the Jewish consciousness. The Jewish experience is unlike that of other religious groups; it shatters the standard mold of organized religion in human history. Unlike other religious groups, the story of Judaism does not begin with an individual “religious genius”; it begins, rather, with the revelation of God to the entire people of Israel, as a community. The Torah, God’s direct communication with mankind, was written not for an individual, but for a community of believers. And so Judaism, in contrast to the other world religions, is made up of three essential parts – God, the Torah and the people of Israel – each one incomplete without the others.
“Jewish experience is not only the adherence to particular doctrines and observances but primarily the living in the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present. It is not only a certain quality in the souls of the individuals; it is primarily involvement and participation in the covenant and community of Israel… The Jew never stands alone before God; the Torah and Israel are always with him.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)
In our highly individualistic culture of the 21st century, religious institutions are experiencing significant decline throughout the Western world – a phenomenon that William James might find encouraging. But for the Jew, the crumbling of religious community is an unspeakable tragedy and an incalculable loss, for it is precisely through covenantal community that we may attain authentic religious experience. In R’ Heschel’s words, “What we do as individuals may be a trivial episode; what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.”