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.
12 thoughts on “Jewish Spirituality”
Can you please define spirituality?
Great question, Neil! I did a bit of digging in dictionaries, and apparently it’s one of those words that means different things to different people.
When I use it, I am referring to a sense of meaning in life and a sense of connection to something greater than one’s own self. Does that help?
I find spirituality in the practice of doing. When you think about it, yoga or other disciplines like yoga are not so different: if you feel good with practicing regularly and being conscious of why you are doing what you are doing, it brings an elevated feeling of being.
That is when spirituality can grow. What Judaism brings me is the framework, and Torah brings me the guidelines and spiritual tools. And I agree with you a hundred percent: no need to creed or credo. And study is a wonderful tool to strengthen the discipline.
A very Jewish reply! Thanks, Otir!
I find spirituality is all sorts of ways. Nature, living animals, helping those in need, visiting the sick or elderly, Tikkun Olam, practicing yoga, swimming and gratitude.
Can you say a little more about finding spiritual content in yoga and swimming? That sounds very interesting, Pamela.
Spirituality, hmmm…I find it breathing. Every breath I take is renewal and a gift. Each morning I spend 15-20 minutes meditating on my breath and the life force it brings me. I then spend the next half hour watching the sunrise with my coffee on my patio (I can do this year round since I live in Arizona) observing nature, the changing seasons, the birds at my feeders, the wildlife (coyotes, fox, javelins) and others that roam the scrub around our home and my dog, Pal Joey, lounging lazily at my side. Desert flora either awaken as the sun comes up or go to sleep;, so interesting! And then I spend time reading and praying for an hour or so. I feel fulfilled for the day ahead. Life is wonderful!
If you enjoy breath meditation, Sheila, you may find my most recent post interesting (or maybe it’s old news) “Play It Again, Ben.”
I do remember reading it at the time, but I am going to go back and re-read at your suggestion. Thank you Rabbi!
Thank you for continuing to educate me.
You are very welcome, Sheri. The education is mutual.