Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.


For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.

Mop Bucket Enlightenment? – Yes, Really!


We’re deep into a season for spiritual growth. Jewish households worldwide are in a frenzy of cleaning. Other Jewish households are guiltily thinking they should be in a frenzy of cleaning. This raises the question, “Where is the spiritual benefit in all this mundane activity?

Passover is an experiential holiday: if you are not a “text person,” this is the holiday for you! Every step of the way, we are offered multi-sensory experiences for learning truths about life and Judaism: tastes, smells, textures, sights, and sounds.

During the seder, we hold up the maror, the bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. We say, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” The bitter taste of horseradish is one way to taste that experience.

Cleaning for Passover is another. We feel the mop handle in our hands, and hear the vacuum cleaner. It isn’t fun to do the whole house at once, to search out every possible crumb. If every member of a household pitches in on Passover prep, cleaning and cleaning in our “free” time, shlepping goods to the food drive, digging out the boxes of Passover dishes, boxing up things that shouldn’t be used during Passover, vacuuming everywhere, we get a little taste of manual labor, no matter how sedentary our day jobs. It’s hard work that we are commanded to do: a taste (just a taste) of servanthood. Our sore muscles will read us the Haggadah, if we do it right.

We are seeking out every crumb of stale, puffed-up junk in our lives: not just the cookie crumbs in the toddler’s pockets, but the old grudges in our hearts and the stale notions in our heads. (Trust me, these things smell.)  The mindless work of cleaning offers us undistracted time to reflect on what stinks, if we are brave enough to take it.

This kind of cleaning is humbling. We see our slavery to bad habits, whether they are eating habits or housekeeping habits. We must notice our clutter. We must notice everything, because we have to look for chametz in it!

Now perhaps you are not a person who cleans for Passover. But I encourage you to do at least a little, because it is a uniquely Jewish spiritual task. If you are thinking, “but I just can’t!” try reading Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a beginner’s approach to the spiritual journey of Passover.

If we do this, when we reach the 14th of Nisan, we’ll be ready for a fresh beginning, ready to walk out into a life renewed, unburdened by chametz. Then, indeed, we can celebrate!

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30 Years Ago Today

Big Guys Now.
Big Guys Now

It’s been 30 years today since I last gave birth.

I remember knowing that this one was my last. I felt very strongly that one for each hand was my limit, a decision I still feel was the right one. My marriage was in terrible shape (it would end three years later) and I was still very unsure who I was or what meaning I was going to make of my life. I was depressed. Having children was what I thought was expected of me.

Having children in that state was a terrible idea, but we were lucky. As Joseph points out at the end of Genesis, sometimes people do things for stupid or bad reasons, and it still turns out for blessing.

Part of what turned my life around was the act of giving birth. I was terrified of the popular “block” anesthetics, so I opted for so-called natural childbirth. I used Lamaze for the first birth and hated it, but when the second pregnancy came along I was still not going to let anyone put a needle in my spine if I could help it. The nurse-midwives at the University of Tennessee Hospital suggested that I might be a good candidate for autohypnosis, and that’s what I did.

Hypnosis doesn’t work for everyone, but I swear to you that I have no memory of pain from Jamie’s birth. It was fast, it was free of pain, and I felt totally in control (a big issue for me at the time.) I remember a labor nurse was worried that I was so quiet and relaxed something must be wrong. What I did have was an experience I can’t adequately describe. I will just say that it was a key milestone on the spiritual journey that ultimately would bring me home to Judaism.

I feel sad at most of what I read about natural childbirth. There’s been quite a polarization around it since that morning in 1983. Seems like every article is either by someone saying it’s the only “right” way, or someone else saying that only stupid people go into childbirth without chemical help. My own feeling is that every woman’s body is different, and every woman’s mind-body connection is different, and it pays to try things and see what works. Don’t try the non-medicated stuff if it scares you, but certain adventuresome souls may find it satisfying as all get out.

The great lesson of motherhood for me was that control is an illusion. I could plan the labor and delivery, and all those plans could have been changed had the medical situation demanded it.  I was sure that I had detailed plans for proper child-rearing, and then real human beings fell into my life and I fell in love with them, and it turned out that they had other plans. And then there are things no parent wants to think about: an accident or an illness can change everything in a blink. Those have happened too.

Parenthood continues to be an engine driving my spiritual life. It has drummed humility into me. It has bathed me in wonder. It has made me cry and laugh, often at the same time. I love my sons, and I love being their mom.

Prayer of the Broken Heart

English: Women with Broken Heart

How is one to pray with a broken heart?

Many of the best known Jewish prayers are prayers of praise. Sometimes the words of these prayers are hard to say when we are hurting, or when there is something we desperately  need. Blessing God – the simplest form of Jewish prayer – is counter-intuitive when we are in pain.

There is a kind of prayer that is not so well known, but it can be helpful when we are in the depths.  That sort of prayer is lamentation. When we make a lament, we list our pains and our disappointments. We own those parts of our unhappy state that are our own fault, but we also list those things that are simply lousy luck or the malice of people over whom we have no control. We make a list, and we hold it up before God. We say, “See? I hurt!”

A prayer of lament is not magic. It will not bring back the dead or mend what is broken, any more than the lament of the speaker in the Book of Lamentations brought back the dead or freed the slaves of Jerusalem after its destruction. So one might ask, what’s the point?

The point of such prayer is not that it is guaranteed to change the situation – many things cannot be changed. However, the prayer can change us.

In making the whole, long, miserable list, we are going to notice things we did not notice before, because we were so lost in pain:

  • Since we are not making this list for anyone but ourselves and God, there is no need to minimize or exaggerate our troubles. We can simply state them as facts, and move towards accepting them as facts.
  • We may notice that some things really were beyond our control: the recession, the fire, the illness. We can say, as Job did to his comforters, “I did not choose this. It is not my fault.” We can reject foolish theories about “attracting” misfortune or illness.
  • We may notice that some things were indeed our own doing. That is not a pleasant discovery, but at this point, it is simply another fact. Perhaps we need to work on teshuvah [repentance] or work on forgiving ourselves. By making teshuvah properly and forgiving ourselves we will be able to move on.
  • We can participate in the Jewish tradition of holding God responsible for those things that were not human actions. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it says that the ancient Hebrews cried out to God, who listened to their cries. In the wilderness, they complained (a lot!) David complained in several of the Psalms. And in modern times, prisoners in Auschwitz actually put God on trial for failing to keep the Covenant.
  • Sometimes making this list will allow us to let go and cry. Sometimes there really is such a thing as “a good cry.”
  • With the calm that comes from really accepting that things are “that bad” new possibilities may emerge. Perhaps pride or shame was getting in the way of accepting help.
  • Telling the truth about our lives is an act of intimacy and dignity. Whatever your understanding of God – whether you address God very traditionally as Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the World] or you address the “still small voice” within your own heart, it is movement towards something new.

Have you ever made a prayer of lament? What was your experience with it?

8 Easy Steps to A Simple Shabbat Dinner

How can your household begin to keep Shabbat? One way to do it is with a simple Shabbat dinner.

Note:  If you are new to Shabbat, make only a few changes, or even one change, at a time.  Try things and notice what happens and how you feel.  Adjust as necessary. This is a lifetime project. Blessings may be said either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for your household.

  1. MAKE IT SPECIAL:  “Special” will mean something slightly different for every household. Perhaps you will use a tablecloth, or invite a friend. Whatever you do, make sure it is food that you like and that will not add stress. If cooking is hard for you, have good takeout. Many Jews eat challah, a sweet egg bread, on Shabbat.
  2. YOU WILL NEED:  Two candles, wine or juice, bread, yummy food.
  3. SET THE TABLE Put the candles in candlesticks and bread on the table. Cover the bread with a napkin.
  4. LIGHT CANDLES:  A. Light the two candles B. Say the blessing: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who commands us to light the candles of Shabbat. (I’m assuming here that English is more comfortable for you. If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  5. BLESS THE WINE: Lift up the cup of wine or juice and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Take a sip. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  6. BLESS THE BREAD: Uncover the bread, touch it, and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.) Then tear or cut a piece of the bread, and eat it.
  7. EAT DINNER:  You already know how to do that!
  8. SAY GRACE AFTER MEALS: Stay at the table until everyone is finished. Then give thanks for having eaten: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Who nourishes us all. There is a longer, beautiful blessing which you can learn by googling “Birkat Hamazon” and about which I’ll write in some future post. For now, for a simple Shabbat for beginners, this is enough.

The most important thing is to keep things low-key and pleasant: don’t use this meal as a time to remind anyone of work that needs to be done, or for unpleasant arguments. And keep in mind that since Shabbat comes once a week, it doesn’t have to be “perfect.” If there is something you’d like to be different, try that next week!

A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

WHERE DO WE KEEP SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!