What is Jewish Spirituality?Lawrence A. HoffmanIn this essay, Synagogue 2000 co-founder Lawrence Hoffman asks: What is spirituality?The English word makes some Jews uncomfortable; for many, it hasChristian or New Age overtones. Is this a Jewish category at all? What makes aspiritual practice, value, or teaching “Jewish?” Why can’t we just be “spiritual”and skip the Jewish part?As with all great and lofty concepts, “spirituality” is harder to define thanto recognize. What is love? What is dignity? What is integrity? Spiritualityis another one of those things that matters profoundly but is hard to capturewithout just pointing to an example or two, and saying, “See? It’s likethat.”A more serious difficulty with defining spirituality is that the languag es ofwestern civilization have been heavily influenced by Christianity, so that untilrecently, “spirituality” was a word that was associated with Christianity.People regularly pointed to “spiritual” monks or nuns, but not rabbis, eventhough it takes just a moment’s thought to realize that people would havepointed also to Nachman of Bratslav, and did point to Abraham JoshuaHeschel, as equally “spiritual.” Interestingly enough, however, both Nachmanand Heschel “qualified” as spiritual not so much on Jewish grounds but becausein addition to their substantial Jewish qualities, they exemplified theChristian definition of people who were apparently intoxicated with God,completely selfless, and more or less beyond anything to which any “normal”person could aspire.To some extent, that Christian use is still alive and well. It is related to theChristian notion of the holy spirit that comes upon the chosen few and infusesthem with the divine. In Shakespeare’s day, “spiritual” was the oppositeof regal; it was the church as opposed to the British crown.Nowadays, it is commonly thought of as what proper churchrepresentatives are supposed to be like, as opposed to politicians:unconcerned with affairs of this world, beyond avariceand power; uninterested in business affairs; even unworldly.Some of these values are also Jewish—Judaism alsoopposes avarice. But some are not. Judaism never withdrewfrom the world like the monastic tradition in Christianity. Judaism thereforeshares parts of the Christian definition, but it has its own take on spiritualityas well.We should ask, first, what “generic” spirituality might be, that is, how anyone—Jew, Christian, Buddhist, or atheist—might be spiritual; and then, howspirituality can be specifically Jewish. Then we can illustrate the Synagogue2000 precept that synagogues can transcend mere ethnicity to become spiritualplaces.
The Demise of Natural CommunitiesOnce upon a time, we lived in what are called “natural communities.” Weromanticize them now, even though there was a lot that was genuinely positiveabout them. I mean farm communities where people lived all their lives,married each other, and settled down into predictable ways of life until theydied; or a shtetl community where the role people played in town was relativelypredictable —girls, for instance, grew into women, married young, hadchildren (if they could), and became housewives. Men entered one of severalpredictable businesses, and eked out a living. Fiddler on the Roof portrays theromanticized version of reality when Tevye asks, “Who day and night mustscramble for a living?” and answers, “The father, the father.” But even Tevyesees his daughters fall in love with a Russian and a socialist. Even his worldwas changing by the time Sholom Aleichem parodied it so well in the Yiddishtale upon which Fiddler on the Roof was based.With few exceptions, there are no more natural communities in modern life.The essence of natural communities is that everything is sure. The old-timereligion has all the answers, even to unexpected tragedies. Pogroms happenbecause of our sins. Sickness occurs because it is God’s will. Life always makesperfect sense because there are no options. There is no existential anxietyabout what to “become,” no question about where to live, no issues about“lifestyle.” In reality, life is never quite that simple—there were always somepeople who never followed the norm, but they were easily cast as deviants,they stayed in the closet, they led two lives, or somehow managed to presenta proper facade to the tightly-knit community as proper.The difference today is that it has b ecome normal for everyone to face uncertainty.Old answers are challenged; institutions that once gave stability, likethe family or the neighborhood, are being challenged or have altogether disappeared.Half the occupations our children will enter have not even beeninvented yet. We live in “future shock,” have mid-life crises, think values arerelative, suffer from loneliness, and discuss alienation (a word our grandparentsnever knew). We undergo crises like sickness and divorce without theconsoling verities that religion once provided as a matter of course. All ofthis is not to pass judgment on old-time natural communities or on ourselves.It is just a statement about how things have changed. Some thingsabout modern life are better—it is good to have choices about what role wewill play in life rather than to be gifted with or condemned to our status inadvance, just because we are “the oldest son” or “the youngest daughter,” atalmid hakham [Torah scholar] or the village cobbler. But it is harder to findmeaning in a world where everything is up for grabs.The Search for MeaningOur world therefore suffers most from a lack of meaning. Religion couldnever end suffering, but it could make suffering endurable, because if youknew you were being tried by God or punished for sin, at least your sufferinghad meaning. If values are relative, if even old-time traditions were once just invented by people like us, if our parents and teachers turn out to be all toohuman, and if even God’s existence is questioned all around us, what is thepoint of suffering? Or even of work? Or of morality, for that matter? Theseare real questions. Remember Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, wherethe perfect Jewish citizen and UJA-Federation honoree kills his mistress successfullyand gets away with it because no one (not even God) is watching? Ifthere is no higher value, no God, nothing that endures, no human virtue towhich to aspire, life becomes an accidental thing into which we are born withnothing worth doing but maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain as longas we can. An ancient school of Greco-Roman philosophers that arrived atthat conclusion were called the Epicureans; the Rabbis called them apikorsim(singular: apikoros). In Yiddish and in Hebrew, apikoros is still the worst thingyou can call someone: it conveys the denial of all that is noble, great, and realin human life.The search for meaning is the search to transcend being an apikoros, andevery thinking person these days is to some extent on that search. Anotherway to describe it is to say that we are trying to give shape to our lives. Whoare we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What do we standfor? We want to know we have integrity. A good metaphor is the child’s pastimecalled “connect the dots.” There is something very consoling about takinga pencil and connecting the dots on a page until a picture emerges. Theapparently random dots turn out to be a boat, and the wiggly lines at thepage’s margin are waves. In the natural community, our lives had naturalshape, because everything was explainab le and we had a minimum of bigdecisions to make, as things were mostly decided for us. In modern life, witheverything up for grabs, life becomes a jumble of dots, without design ormeaning. The task of modern life is to make sense of it all by connecting thedots of our lives into a coherent picture of a person whose biography we areproud to call our own. The psychologist Erik Erikson called it “owning ourown life cycle.” Judaism calls it becoming a mensch.The way we do that is universal. We need to identify with something greaterthan ourselves. Before we were ever born, we had ancestors and a history.Before we started our own life’s journey, we were placed at the end of a journeythat others had set for us, so that to some extent, our own trek throughtime is a continuation of a longer journey, much much greater than our own.The decisions we make are not just self-indulgent; they are part of that journey,determined by the values that the journey represents. When we die, ourlife’s project does not die with us, because others will come along and inheritwhat we have wrought, continuing our story just as we continued the tale ofothers. In the here and now, we are not alone either, because we have a genuinecommunity of people on the same journey as we are. Our communitiesgather to celebrate the things that matter and to mourn life’s traumas. Thesearch for personal meaning is the sear ch for history and hope; it is the searchfor community and connectedness.
Ultimate ConnectednessSpirituality is the dawning recognition that we are connected in all theseways: to our ancestors, our descendants yet to come, to history, to a purpose,and to a community of others united by values implicit in that pur pose. Butthe spiritual dawning goes deeper still. It has an intellectual component whenwe think through the nature of the universe, governed by dependable laws inwhich we ourselves have a place. Our very bodies are connected to laws ofchemistry and physics; our minds are connected to some larger intelligencethat seems to lie behind the magnitude of reality. It dawns on us also, one dayor other, that we are part of a grand design in nature of which we know onlya fraction. We feel called to revere all that is, to take responsibility for othercreatures, for the environment, for all of life. Everything has consequencesfor everything else, everything is interrelated. There is majesty to it all, a shapeto time and space, and a feeling that we belongto a very large picture where we can make a difference,for better or for worse.Ultimate connectedness leads us to sense thedivine. At that ultimate level of thought, whatHeschel called “radical amazement,” words beginto fail. So we use the word God, knowing, asMaimonides did, that we can never do justiceto God’s reality. Is God a mind that lies behindit all, and accessible, therefore, to our ownminds? That’s what Maimonides thought. IsGod the source of help, the friendly presencewe seek behind the phenomena of nature? That’swhat the psalmist thoug ht. Is God the voice ofconscience that guides us toward all that is rightand good? That’s what Isaiah thought. Is Godthe intimate presence who follows us even intothe moments of despair that Judaism calls “exile?”That’s what the Rabbis thought. The list isendless: it is infinite, indeed, as we say God is.Spirituality, then, is a word that changes meaningfrom era to era. It need not be a Christianterm, and it is a far cr y from abandoning ourreason and taking up other-worldly pursuits. Itis not mindless emotionality. It is the dawningrecognition that we are not apikorsim; that somethings are forever; that we are not alone; thatour lives have shape; that we are connected firstand foremost to others and to history; and thatour connectedness leads ultimately to our beingat home in the universe, where we sense thereality of the ultimate presence we call God.
Jewish SpiritualityI have spoken so far only of generic spirituality, the search of Everyman andEverywoman for connectedness. But the truth is, there is no generic spirituality,just as there is no Everyman or Everywoman. We are all a particular manor woman, and we think with particular models, metaphors, values, and imagesof the whole. Even God, who is a God for all peoples, can only be imaginedas a particular God. Jewish spirituality is the specifically Jewish search forconnectedness. It is the dawning realization that we were at Sinai, not at thefounding of the Church in Rome; that our story is the story of the Exodus, notthe story of the Buddha; that our enlightenment comes through Torah, notthrough the gift of the holy spirit that calls us to conversion; that our mostsacred place to which we make pilgrimage is Jerusalem, not Mecca; that ourcelebrations are seders and Shabbatot, not eucharists and the Lord’s Day.The dots we connect cannot be generic “everyones,” just as great art cannotbe generic paint-by-number. Generic pictures are hung on the walls of HolidayInns and Howard Johnsons. Masterpieces are particular things: they areRembrandts, Monets, or Michelangelos. We too are masterpieces, masterpiecesin the making: not just generic men and women, but specific someones,in our case, Jews—not pagans, Christians, Muslims, or Hindus. Jewish spiritualityis identification with the master narrative of Judaism, the Jewish picture,the Jewish project, and Jewish hope.
ReflectionWith a partner, discuss:1. What is your own understanding of spirituality?2. Do you believe that your life has shape? What form has it taken or istaking?3. How would you summarize the “master narrative” of Judaism?4. Where are some points of connection between your own life and thisnarrative?
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