Earlier this year the Jewish world was shocked when the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), meeting in Pittsburgh, called for the increased use of kippot (skullcaps), tallitot (prayer shawls), mikvah (ritual bathing i.e., baptism), observance of the dietary laws and the use of more Hebrew in worship liturgy.
What made this particularly shocking” was that the CCAR is the rabbinical arm of the Reform branch of Judaism in the United States. Reform Jews, in the past, boasted of their freedom from such trappings. To them, these were the elements of “superstition” as practiced by their less sophisticated Orthodox Jewish cousins. Dr. Israel Zoberman, the founding rabbi of Reform Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach, Virginia attributes this about face to “the yearning for spirituality in the midst of assimilation in an Age of Reason.…”1
This yearning is not confined to Reform Jews. Throughout the Jewish community, one can see a retreat from modernism in the search of new spirituality within Judaism.
What is the meaning of this elusive term, “spirituality” and is it any different from other kinds of spirituality?
The dictionary takes us in several directions:
- of the spirit or the soul, often in a religious or moral aspect, as distinguished from the body
- of, from, or concerned with the intellect, or what is often thought of as the better or higher part of the mind
- characterized by the ascendancy of the spirit; showing much refinement of thought and feeling
None of these definitions seems to encompass what Rabbi Zoberman has in mind. The new Reform list of things to do, wear and eat seems to speak more of pietism. Jewish spirituality, according to Zoberman, is essentially proactive. It requires study and adherence to certain prescribed procedures. It is a lifestyle—a mode of daily living—more than a journey.
What has characterized the whole Western world during the last generation of the twentieth century is “spirituality.” The term is kept deliberately vague so that it can mean whatever we want it to mean or whatever our “guides” tell us it means.
Alcoholics Anonymous, and all the twelve-step programs that have followed, agree to a definition that has a direct bearing on their understanding of spirituality:
[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. [We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.2
Twelve-step devotees confess to a higher power according to whatever one believes or disbelieves. One AA zealot actually carried a crystal doorknob in his briefcase as the higher power to which he could confess his shortcomings.
Even agnostics have some concept of spirituality. Dr. John Brodsky of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, speaking from a perspective derived from the Society of Humanistic Judaism, cites a definition of spirituality:
Spirituality is a rewarding emotional state of being, provoked by the intimation of an all-pervasive natural order, combined with an inability to completely decipher this order. Possessed of limited abilities and partial knowledge, the spiritual self recognizes a need to act morally in the interests of all sentient beings.3
Nevertheless, Brodsky himself rejects this definition by saying,
Spirituality is a bogus word. Ever since the Enlightenment, when the “spirits” became so transparent as to appear non-existent, imprecise thinkers, fearful that reason might be put in the service of evil, have clung to the concept of spirituality like so many drowning but hopeful angels clinging to a bit of heavenly driftwood.4
Brodsky’s argument against spirituality as a sentiment, a false hope, is understandable. But suppose there is such a thing as a spirit or the spirit which transcends all of human behavior?
Within the human psyche there seems to be a yearning for this intangible something more—and to meet that need, believing has become a goal in itself. The ability to believe is carefully cultivated, but according to New Age thought, belief need not find an object. One can be “spiritual” without believing in God. The social effect is the same as having people who love to be in love yet do not seek any permanent relationship, just love. That kind of loving can lead to a rich fantasy life, promiscuity, or both. Just believing is similar. It stokes the imagination and evokes sentiments but does not necessarily find its anchor in ultimate reality.
This search for spirituality—the apprehension of an ultimate reality outside of ourselves—is not limited to Jews. Virtually all world religions are on a quest for a spirituality that they define differently from the others. Not only that, secularists have their own definition for spirituality. We all have friends who look for the spiritual meaning of life in horoscopes, tarot readings, channeling and/or the consultation of harmonic crystals.
One can’t help but wonder about the quality of the quest of the many who are seeking spirituality. Some want to know the future, to be able to control the future or to avoid the consequences of what is ahead. Basically, such people are not so much seeking to know the Almighty as a spirit, or to understand his spiritual nature, as they are looking to acquire and utilize the power of whatever is spiritual and powerful.
Modern day traditional Judaism differs from the Hebrew Scriptures on how one is to achieve spirituality. The religion created by the rabbis out of the biblical elements contains several routes to the contemporary Jewish “nirvana.” Here are four of the most recognizable paths:
The path of spirituality in which one follows the Law and does mitzvot (good deeds) is similar to Islam. The Law keeper is not merely trying to keep out of trouble, but sees himself or herself on a path that eventually will lead to some deeper encounter with the divine. Such a person expects to come to the realization of the meaning of life through obedience. Godliness is ascribed to those who diligently keep the Law, at least as many of the 613 precepts as is possible to keep in a post-Temple age. The path to spirituality is also achieved by the person who faithfully performs mitzvot. One of the greatest of these good deeds is to provide for the institutions of learning and the well-being of the religious teachers so that the individual can learn how to properly keep the Law.
Learning as a spiritual exercise is not the mere acquisition, appropriation or assimilation of facts. Judaism teaches that it is impossible to comprehend the Almighty, but there is the hope that through study one will catch a glimpse of him or at least gain the wisdom to come to some sort of spiritual realization. Even more, there is the hope that one will receive spiritual insights through study and learning. Rabbinism hints that there are profound truths which are “sod” or hidden. Somehow coming to these truths is like discovering clues along the way of a treasure hunt. The treasure is a higher truth. This outlook makes Jewish spirituality take on an aspect of gnosticism where we end up believing that there are ways to attain higher and higher levels of secret knowledge not known or decipherable by the masses.
Learning can also have its mystical aspects. Jewish folklore is replete with stories of miracle-working rabbis, who were able to perform supernatural acts after they discovered a great spiritual truth. For example, there is a legend that describes Jesus as a sorcerer who learned how to fly. However, a learned rabbi discovered a piece of parchment which he inserted into one of his own veins. This parchment (stories differ at this point) either had the pronunciation guide to the Ineffable Name or some great truth. With this parchment, the righteous rabbi was able to fly higher than Jesus and bring him down.5
In that story, the Jewish view of learning is that certain knowledge leads to gaining magical powers. Some notions of what is spiritual are not all that different from believing in magic. There is a more common view that learning brings spiritual empowerment. Learning is seen as a way of strengthening the soul.
Yet it is not as supposed. A first century Jew, Saul of Tarsus, noted with irony that “they are always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).
Mysticism, as expressed through Kaballah and the writings of the Zohar, seeks spiritual meanings through symbols, similes, metaphors and otherwise disjunctive numbers. It ascribes great significance to vague signs. Omens are given concrete interpretations. It is as if the Almighty and his angels were sending secret signals if only one knew where to look. The purpose of pursuing significance in trivia such as astrology and ouija boards is that the seeker wants to become a seer. He or she wants to be able to interpret the mysteries of the world and believes that there are clues to that end.
Then there is the mystique of Gamatria or numerology. The bumbler of numbers hopes to arrange them into a sequence with profound meaning. Those who practice numerology (more recently with a computer and under the banner of the Bible code movement) are not unlike fortune tellers or those casting tarot cards. They find deep meanings in shallow coincidences. Unfortunately, like Law keeping, good deeds and study, Jewish mysticism has as its underlying, unspoken purpose, the seeker’s ability to gain some control over his or her destiny.
Judaism is concerned with the individual, yet the orientation of our spiritual forms is most definitely communal. Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice-president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, points out that,
Jewish tradition takes numerous steps to argue that communal life is the critical issue for Jews. That is why certain parts of the service, including the mourner’s Kaddish, may be recited only if a minyan is present. That is why the Viddui (Yom Kippur Confession) is written in the plural.6
One might wonder how the collective identity could be spiritual. The Bible contains the idea that the highest form of spirituality is to commune with God. One notion, thought but rarely uttered in the Jewish community, is that there is a “pintele” or small bit of the divine in every Jew. Such thinking leads to the surmise that if all Jews were of one heart and mind, such collective divinity within us would lead us to the Truth.
In the quest for spirituality, all false religions share at least one aspect in common: the practitioner is basically seeking power. This is in opposition to the biblical revelation, where seekers are to give themselves to the God who is all-powerful.
This difference is seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, as the concept of “fear of the Lord.” It not only refers to the regard one should have for the Almighty, but also to an awareness and sense of his presence. The God of the Bible is the One with whom Moses was not afraid to disagree and with whom Jacob was not afraid to wrestle. In these divine encounters, both were not only aware of God, but were even more aware of themselves.
Thus Moses says, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Moses seems to realize that God could choose to heal his stammer, but God tells him that instead, his brother Aaron, whom he has not seen for 40 years, will be his mouthpiece.
In wrestling with the angel, our father Jacob senses that his life will be changed for the better—transformed—if he can but get the divine wrestler to “bless him” (Genesis 32:26). Jacob holds on fiercely until he gets what he wants.
In modern Judaism, it would be hard to conceive of a God who would be so transcendent that Moses would not talk back and that Jacob would not dare grab hold. Spirituality, in the biblical sense, leads to holiness and understanding that God is wholly other and yet God is not only transcendent but imminent. God is both majestic as well as close in and personal. He is above and beyond, yet here and now.
The religion of the Hebrew Scriptures is one of the few that recognizes that the things of the Spirit are not that much different from the things that concern us. We should not think in terms of the corporeal versus the Spirit or the tangible versus the ethereal. The two are very much related; righteousness in the Spirit leads to sanctification in the body.
The best advice to those seeking spirituality within a biblical context comes from the Almighty himself when he says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We are not to seek spirituality per se, but we are to seek to “know the Lord.”
One would think that the basic place to look for such Jewish knowledge of the Lord would be in the Scriptures. In the second verse of B’reshit (Genesis), we are introduced to the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh). It is this Ruach Hakodesh who gives us the strength to do the mitzvot that God would have us do.7 This includes not just the routine good deeds but even epochal events.
For example, the strength of Samson was not in his long hair but in the Holy Spirit. His long hair was merely the sign of his dedication.8 When it comes to knowledge, this same Holy Spirit who strengthened Samson is our teacher and guide.
You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, and did not withhold Your manna from their mouth, and gave them water for their thirst (Nehemiah 9:20).
The psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God; Your Spirit is good. Lead me in the land of uprightness” (Psalm 143:10).
God does not make us spiritual persons with spiritual powers; rather he offers to fill us with his Holy Spirit who then can empower us to follow his Law and do good deeds. Through the Holy Spirit we are guided into all truth and, furthermore, are sealed into a loving community.
We should not be seeking “spirituality” but openness to God’s Holy Spirit.
While biblical faith provides the possibility of more contemplation and meditation than other world religions, it also provides something more concrete. Followed to its conclusion, it provides a knowledge of and a relationship with God. That is true spirituality which enables us to relate to the everyday tasks of life.
Many of those who seek the nebulous spirituality of this age, hope to gain from it power to discern matters and prevail over the human situation. On the other hand, Jesus’ teachings expose the powerlessness of the individual which is remedied by belief in an all-powerful God.
Some of us Jews who have come to believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel began our journey by seeking spirituality. There were those who said of Jesus that his teachings were spiritual and that hearing them made them feel spiritual. Yet that merely showed him as a wise, wonder-working rabbi. It did not answer the deepest question of the human heart: the ontological issue, or simply put, “what is the nature of being?”.
The focus of all human spirituality is based on the transition point where life as we know it terminates. At that juncture of life and death, the question of the ultimate nature and goal of life confronts us. It’s all explained in the Scriptures. If we are to know the meaning of life, we need to focus on the Giver of life as shown in all of Scripture.
We need to focus not only on Jesus’ life, but on Jesus’ death. We must focus on the questions of why he died 2,000 years ago, the manner of his death and the spiritual meaning of his death.
Jesus’ death at Calvary turned the world upside down as seen through a lens. Yet instead of death ending his life, it began a life for all who are refracted through that lens. Not only that, but because of the spiritual nature of the universe, Jesus was able to bound back from death, not as a disembodied spirit, but as a re-embodied person. This is more commonly called the resurrection of Jesus.
In the biblical religion, spirituality comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit, and being filled with the Holy Spirit proceeds from being redeemed through the sacrifice and resurrection of Messiah. In symbolism, the Jewish sacrificial system taught us the meaning of exchange or substitutionary atonement—shed blood of a sacrifice on the holy altar for the sins of the people. In Jesus’ death, we find life. In his resurrection, we are renewed.
But best yet is the promise of the Holy Spirit to believers in Yeshua. When a person comes to know Yeshua they don’t seek spirituality but they seek to allow this Spirit, the Ruach Hakodesh, to be operative within them. The Holy Spirit is available to all who are ready to be guided by God’s truth.
However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me; for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you (John 16: 13,14).
1. Zoberman, Israel, National Jewish Post and Opinion, June 9, 1999, p. 16
2. Alcoholics Anonymous statement of belief, Steps 2 and 3
3. Personal correspondence between Moise Rosen and John Brodsky; July 1999
5. This is from the widely told story of Yoske Ponderik, circa 1400
6. Gordis, Daniel, Does the World Need the Jews?, Scribner, NY, 1997, p. 200
7. Good deeds, or literally, “commandment”
8. Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14″