How to Be a Truly Spiritual Jew*

(*and avoid the pitfalls of quick-fix religious consumerism)

by Jeffrey K. Salkin

From Reform Judaism, Fall 1995
Reprinted with Permission.

Everywhere you go in the Reform movement, the word on people’s lips is spirituality. It is the religious buzz word of our age.

The trend towards spirituality has greatly enriched Reform Judaism, energizing a movement once perceived as being overly intellectual and rational. Shabbat, festival observance, liturgical experimentation, a new seriousness about Torah study — these are all positive developments. But, as with any swing of the pendulum, the rush toward an ill-defined spirituality poses a potential threat.

Mindless Religion

Despite a renewed interest in text study, many Reform Jews equate spiritual with non-intellectual. “I feel Jewish” has replaced “I know Jewish,” Thought and the pursuit of knowledge are being sacrificed on the altar of affect.

The author Flannery O’Connor has written: “One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of though, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed, has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.” Her warning applies to all liberal religions.

The “New Age” Trap

In a Zen parable a man searches for a lost object. He is crawling on his hands and knees when a friend approaches him. “What are you doing?” The friend asks. “I am looking for something that I lost,” he replies. “Where did you lose it?” the friend asks. “Over there,” the man says, pointing to a nearby place. “Then why are you looking over here?” “Because the light is better here,” the man replies. Many Reform Jews are searching for God in a place where the light is rumored to be better — at the intersection of beliefs, philosophies, and techniques called “New Age” religion.

If you visit a Barnes and Nobel superstore, you will see what much of American religion has become. There are three bookcases for Judaism; three bookcases for general religion and Christianity; three for general inspiration; two each for Bible, eastern philosophy, and myth; and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including spiritualism, astrology, and psychic phenomena; alchemy, tarot, goddess worship, and Wicca (witchcraft); out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and reincarnation; angels, Satanism, and the occult; the channeling of spiritual energy and faith healing; yoga and transcendental meditation; holistic health; unorthodox psychotherapeutic techniques; and healing crystals. New Age follows the time-hallowed American proclivity for creating new religions. It has been called “microwave” religion — instant karma.

Not all New Age religion is incompatible with Judaism. Jewish mysticism is clearly the major point of contact. Long before books about angels became a mega-industry, Judaism taught (or rather sang) about angels. Shabbat opens with a song of welcome to the malachei ha-shareyt, the ministering angels. Long before the current healing fad, Judaism recognized the healing power of prayer combined with traditional medicine. Long before New Age speculation, Judaism acknowledged the immortality of the soul, and the Talmud records near-death experiences. Long before New Age, Judaism developed rich traditions of mysticism and mediation. Even astrology is not foreign to the Jewish experience. The Talmud and Midrash discuss the Jewish implications of the Zodiac; in Israel tourist can visit a glorious mosaic of the Zodiac on the floor of the ancient Bet Alpha synagogue.

Blurring Boundaries

Despite these cultural and religious parallels, Judaism stands in fundamental opposition to the pantheism that is characteristic of New Age teachings. If God is in everything, then everything is holy and nothing is profane. New Age speaks of “getting in touch with one’s inner voice” or “following your bliss.” But “following your bliss” is the antithesis of living in Covenant.

A Jewishly-involved teenager in New Jersey wonders whether it is permissible to observe Lent. “Isn’t it about spiritual cleansing?” she asks. A young Jewish woman inquires on the Internet whether she can be a Wicca (witch) and still be authentically Jewish.

The multicultural thrust of New Age encourages a smorgasbord approach to ritual. Everyone’s traditions, symbols, and stories are mixed into a cauldron and somehow expected to meld into a meaningful universal religion. Such experiments didn’t work for medieval alchemists, and it won’t work for religious multi-culturalists either.

Worship of the Self

If spirituality is about “whatever turns you on,” then why be Jewish? Appreciating the poetry and devotional intensity of their faiths is commendable, but religious syncretism is a dead end. If “spiritual” is whatever you need it to be, then the entire notion of peoplehood becomes outmoded and parochial.

In a “Doonsbury”cartoon the hip reverend is reviewing the church schedule. “OK, flock, I thought I’d run through this week’s activities. This Monday, of course, we have a lecture on nutrition from Kate Moss’s personal chef. Tuesday and Thursday will be our regular 12-step nights … Sex addition … [is] on Friday at 6:30 pm, right after organic co-gardening. Also, a special treat-Saturday night will be aerobic male-bonding night! So bring your sneaks. Any questions?” “Yes, is there a service?” “Canceled. There was a conflict with the self-esteem workshop.”

We Jews may not be running self-esteem workshops in our synagogues, but the cult of “me” is quietly present. Many contemporary Jews find spirituality in the life cycle rather than in the festival cycle. They believe the synagogue exists exclusively for their own life moments — especially bar/bat mitzvah.

Reform Jews who struggle with the meaning of spirituality would do well to hear the cautionary words of writer Cynthia Ozick: “The Jewish way is to feel responsibility to the Creator, not to fancy you own a piece of the Creator, or that the Creator inhabits you; to be responsible to your fellow-creatures, not to be lifted above them by special intuitive or magical gifts of Divine apprehension; to express the Covenantal relationship by fellow-feeling in peoplehood, in duty, and in deed, not to make it secondary to subjective longings; to distinguish between the holy and the profane, not to wash away the holy by finding it everywhere in a great flood of undifferentiated and ubiquitous magical appearance; to attempt to control the self, not to follow the unyoked self’s demand for equation with the forces of the universe.”

Authentic Reform Spirituality

What, then, is authentic Reform Jewish spirituality? First, spirituality is about God. To speak of God is to acknowledge that we are not about everything, but about something (or Someone). The Jewish spiritual search is about that which is inner, deeper, higher, and historic; the search for that which transcends the moment and individual need. It is simply not enough to speak of inwardness. The inward must connect to God.

Spirituality is about kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is an attitude towards life. Holiness, means to venerate the Divine; to seek out the mystery of God; to sense that some realms are set-apart, unique, linking heaven and earth, and manifesting a shared reality with the Divine. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “There are worlds more real than this one. Shabbat is more real than Wednesday. Jerusalem is more real than Chicago. The sukah is more real than a garage. Tzedakah is more real than income tax.”

Holiness means to enter into a conversation about the meaning of life; to ask questions not usually asked in the secular realm; to speak the language of what ought to be, even when it means speaking against the language of what really is.

The following are secular questions: “What are my rights?” “How can I own it?” “What does the world owe me?” “Does it work?” “Will people approve of me?” These are holy questions: “What are my obligations?” “How can I proclaim in my deeds that ultimately god owns everything?” “What do I owe the world?” “Is this particular behavior right?” “Will God approve of me?”

Reform Judaism must create a life-long holiness curriculum that speaks of holy places (the home, the synagogue, Jerusalem, the Land of Israel), holy times (Shabbat and festivals, the life cycle), holy relationships (parent/child, husband/wife, teacher/student, sibling/sibling-and even relatively powerful/relatively powerless, which leads us into an involvement with tikun olam), holy ways of speaking (prayer and worship), holy ways of having and giving ( tzedakah as discipline and life plan), holy ways of eating (an awareness of kashrut as Jewish value), holy ways of reading (Torah and all that flows from it), and holy ways of being (seeing oneself as an inheritor of Jewish history and its lessons).

“Holiness” is where “spirituality” becomes “Judaism.” Through a disciplined participation in authentic Jewish acts that increase our sense of holiness, we connect ourselves to our people, to our history, to God, and to that ubiquitous, ill-defined thing called spirituality.

Spirituality is about social action. In Judaism there is no dichotomy between the inner and the outer, between action and contemplation. Homelessness, the plight of children, and the loss of compassion and values in our society are spiritual issues. When we legitimately use “God” in a sentence that describes our action, then social action becomes a spiritual path. I am working in this soup kitchen because feeding the hungry is a mitzvah ordained by God. I am involved in a black-Jewish dialogue because God created on person at the dawn of creation, and therefore all people are endowed with immeasurable dignity. I am working against violence and pornography in the media because those things violate the image of God.

Spirituality is about study, about an authentic engagement with our people’s sacred writings. Study is our way of redeeming ourselves from what sociologist Peter Berger calls “the homelessness of the mind.,” Moreover, study is the place where God dwells. The Torah blessing praises God as notein ha-Torah — the One Who gives Torah — in the present tense, rather than the past, teaching us to hear the revealing voice of God through ongoing Torah study.

Spirituality is about the Jewish people. Moments which connect us to the Jewish people are just a holy as moments of prayer, contemplation, and study. I will always remember the shiver down my spine during my first Soviet Jewry rally, realizing at age ten that I was part of a people that transcended my family and synagogue. I feel the same way today walking in Salute to Israel parades, knowing that Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel lives) is inextricably linked with Od avinu chai (God, our Divine Parent, lives).

We need to expose our young people to what it means to be part of an extended Jewish family. We need to teach them that they are part of a spiritual reality that exists beyond the borders of their own communities, one that reaches back to Abraham and Sarah and forward to the Messianic Age.

Spirituality is about the Land of Israel. Israel must become an integral part of every Jew’s spiritual vocabulary. Eretz Yisrael is a tangible point of contact between us and God, one of the corporeal signs of the Covenant. When we travel to Israel, Professor Lawrence Hoffman points out, we must go as pilgrims, not as tourists.

Spirituality is about the everyday. We can encounter God in our daily lives, especially in our work. Our workplace, no less than the sanctuary or the place where we study Torah, ca become an arena for our spirituality and for the constant demonstration of our deepest values. How do we incorporate Jewish spiritual values into our daily lives? I suggest four ways.

  1. Imitate God. A weaver told me that when she crates, she goes through the seven days of creation. “First, there is chaos. You hover over your work, just like God did. Then comes the concept, which is the mundane equivalent of ‘Let there be light,’ As the idea becomes illuminated, you find the form for it. Then you say, ‘This is good,’ just as God said upon the creation of the world.”
  2. Be God’s partner — finish the work that God never got around to finishing. Psychotherapists, social workers, and counselors are God’s partners in helping people rebuild their lives.
  3. Stand in God’s presence. Judaism cares more about how you earn your money than what you eat. More than 100 commandments in the Torah are about money; only 24 concern kashrut. Caring about ethics at work means refusing to cut corners. It means doing tzedakah — leaving the corners of the field for the poor. To echo Martin Buber, it means treating another person as Thou rather than as It.
  4. Smash false Gods. Refuse to give into the idols of careerism and workahololism the only socially acceptable and laudable addition in America?” In essence, everything we do in life — whether at home or at work — has spiritual possibilities. Spirituality is about how we talk to and about other people; how we treat our employees; what we eat; how we spend; what we give. The closest Hebrew term for spirituality is kavanah — doing things with sacred intentionality. When on lives fully as a Jew, that life becomes a kiddush ha-shem, a sanctification of the Name of God.

Author Jeffrey K. Salkin is rabbi of Central Synagogue of Nassau County, Rockville Centre, NY, and co-chair of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.