Seeking Spirituality in Judaism

As we anticipate the High Holidays, we should look within our traditions to revitalize our collective spirituality.

by Rabbi Judah Kogen

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There is hardly a more compelling need in Conservative Judaism than re-energizing the spiritual life of our communities.

Whether we recognize that something is missing in our religious lives or are merely motivated by the practical consideration of congregational survival, we need to address the gap between institutional culture and the life of the soul. It soon will be too late to live with the consequences of a posture that tells us that we don’t have the resources for spiritual needs or that “it doesn’t really matter,” or that what we have always offered ought to serve the needs of those we attempt to attract.

Many people have the impression that overt spirituality is central in sects or cults but is absent in mainstream Judaism. That is not a correct characterization of our tradition. The depth of feeling exhibited by those who have clung to our tradition for so long – and those who continue to do so today – should make it clear that our tradition has always had and still has the power to captivate the spirit and energize our lives.

For several generations we have run our synagogues and educated our young people focusing on values other than spirituality. The result is a generation of potential new members who view the synagogue as a place for anyone but spiritual seekers. Synagogue leaders who have become sensitive to this concern often search for the solution in innovative programming or the recruitment of imaginative leadership. All too often, we attempt to appeal to the unaffiliated without realizing that solving our outreach problem starts with better serving our core constituency. As long as outsiders find a community that shows no apparent need for spirituality, they will remain outsiders. On the other hand, a community that exhibits its own spiritual search can become a magnet for other seekers.

The truth is that Judaism’s practices and beliefs are all about spirituality, and the apparent absence of spirituality in our institutions has been more a matter of defining our priorities than about defining our values. A renewed articulation of our basic principles could go a long way toward revitalizing both our thinking and the health of our institutions.

There is a well-known text that can serve as a guide for that process. The second mishnah of Pirkei Avot cites a statement of Shimon haTzadik: al sh’loshah d’varim ha’olam omed – al ha’torah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al g’milut chassadim. (The world rests on three things: on Torah, on service of God, on deeds of love.) Each of these foundations offers multiple paths of entry to Jewish spirituality. Finding the appropriate route is the key to each individual’s spiritual search.

The following are some of the paths, listed in the order formulated in the text:

Torah: When the Talmud states that study of Torah is equivalent to a list of other values, it is generally understood that studying Torah leads to incorporating its values and performing mitzvot. Some, however, understand study to be a supreme value in and of itself. While the first interpretation fits study into the system of mitzvot as an enabler, it can limit study to being a resource rather than a goal. The second interpretation subsumes the internalization of the Torah’s values as part of the rationale for study, but it adds another dimension.

Study is far more than rungs on a curricular ladder. It is our opportunity to absorb the essence of our tradition, to become a part of the community of Jews who have added to that tradition throughout time and to add something of our own to that living tradition. If our synagogues are places where we follow a script without learning it as well, we miss a golden opportunity to contribute to that script. We institutionalize education as a training ground without making it central to our lives as Jewish adults. Quite apart from the poor example that sets for our children, it impoverishes our adult experience. It really doesn’t matter whether we focus on basic Jewish skills or the deep intricacies of Jewish thought. When we establish study as a core value we engage our spiritual tradition meaningfully.

Avodah: Worship ought to be the most obvious pathway to spirituality. In the past, it was what defined Jewish spiritual behavior. Today, it has become a necessary evil for many of our members. For too many Jews, prayer is just words, unintelligible words at that. Clearly we need to enhance people’s understanding of those words, their framework and the melodies embedded in that storehouse of words. Prayer offers an unequaled opportunity to dialogue with God and to internalize the values of our tradition.

Studying the content of the siddur is, of course, an opportunity to engage in multiple pathways to spirituality through both study and worship. Expressing the values embedded in avodah enables us to express gratitude (through the blessings of thanksgiving), to show solidarity with our people and tradition, and to share our feelings for our people by joining with them in prayer. Engaging all our senses – through the music of our services, the beauty of our prayer space and the tastes and smells of the meals we share and rituals like Kiddush and Havdalah – allows us to enter otherworldly dimensions of spirituality. Our tradition is quite conscious of the tendency for prayer to become rote, but it also emphasizes the need to become habituated to religious practices. If we don’t, we risk falling into the trap of being unable to appreciate what our tradition has to offer. By becoming better attuned to the nuance of worship, we have an opportunity take advantage of the spiritual resources of our tradition.

G’milut chassadim: Acts of loving kindness enable us to impact the world around us by translating our values into actions. These are more than doing good things for others. They are the fulfillment of the mitzvot that direct our lives.

Many of us perform good works with a variety of motivations. How many of us do them because they are Jewish values? How many of our members introduce themselves to their rabbis by saying, “I’m not very religious,” and proceed to perform the good deeds which are the very hallmark of religious people?

We have taken pride in the balance we sustain between ritual and social action relative to other movements, without focusing enough on the intensity our tradition demands in both realms. When we join the struggle for Jewish communities overseas, for human rights in our country and around the world, when we provide for the needs of mourners or the sick, when we offer financial support for good causes, we are being good Jews and are, in fact, demonstrating that we are religious. These acts and others are not only commendable. They are spiritual, as well.

Our synagogues are not perceived as centers of spiritual life not because their agendas do not incorporate inherently spiritual activities, but because we don’t make the pathways to spirituality the focus of those agendas. If we did, our synagogues and, indeed, our own lives, would not lack for spirituality. Different people have different needs and interests. If we focus on one or more avenues to spirituality in the new year, we will find our Jewish life enriched and the quality of our spirituality enhanced.

My challenge to our movement as we prepare for 5774 is as follows: Let us redefine our spiritual search consistent with the assets our tradition offers us. Let us make a new year’s resolution to refocus on Torah, avodah and g’milut chassadim in our lives and in the lives of our congregations. In doing so, we can redefine our spiritual search and revitalize our individual and collective spirituality. By adding a new dimension of authentic Jewish spirituality to our lives, we can reposition ourselves as a spiritual movement in the greater Jewish world. Acting alone, we might enrich our own lives. Acting together, we can help rejuvenate our entire community.

Rabbi Judah Kogen was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1974. He has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and has been president of two regions of the Rabbinical Assembly.