Sermon: Spirituality isn’t a Jewish thing…

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 14 August 2017

Shabbat 12 August 2017                                                                Ekev


Somewhat irreverently, I call one of my favourite prayers, ‘the lavatorial prayer.’ It comes right at the beginning of the morning service and has the rubric ‘The Gift of Our Body.’ It recognises that our body is a collection of vessels, openings and the like, all of which need to work correctly for our continued existence. I suppose we all woke up this morning with the expectation that everything would be in correct working order. And of course we only become aware of it when things don’t work as they should or when they don’t work in quite the same way as they used to. So at the very beginning of the day, Jewish practice requires us to acknowledge the miracle that our bodies are.

Yet we might still wonder what bodily functions have to do with religious life or prayer? Shouldn’t religion concern itself with higher, less-fundamental matters?

“Rav Kahana once went in and hid under Rav ‘s bed. He heard Rav chatting with his wife and joking and doing what he required …. Rav said to him, ‘Kahana what are you doing here!? Go out, because it is not right.’ Kahana replied: ‘This, too, is Torah, and I must learn.’” (Berachot 62a)

There’s a sort of mantra that one still hears quite often: “Judaism is a religion of deeds while Christianity is a religion of belief.” It seems to suggest that Judaism and spirituality are somehow incompatible. Those who are interested in spirituality often feel that they have to look for it outside Judaism because, as everybody knows, “Judaism is a religion of deeds while…”

During my rabbinic studies in the 1960’s, I remember that those – like Lionel Blue – who suggested ‘spirituality’ should be part of a rabbinic training programme were regarded by some almost as if they might belong more in a Christian seminary than in the Leo Baeck College.

There was, of course, a sizeable minority of Jews at that time who were interested in spirituality. But all too often they also perceived Judaism and spirituality as being mutually exclusive and felt obliged to look for it elsewhere. The “counter culture” of the 1960s led many, Jews included, to Eastern philosophies; so many, in fact, that I am told there are more “Ju-Bu’s” – Jewish-Buddhists – in the United States than there are Jews for Jesus.

Teachers and rabbis seldom talked directly about spirituality and so I guess it was assumed that either it wasn’t there, was taken for granted or wasn’t important enough to be talked about. The fact that other religions spoke overtly about it reinforced the perception that it had little place in Jewish thought. Spirituality assumed a Christian patina, the vocabulary of spirituality became associated more with Christianity than Judaism, which simply reinforced the idea that “Jews don’t do spirituality…”

But the consciously-Jewish part of that counter-culture wanted to explore their Judaism more deeply, including spirituality. They, at least, were saying that they couldn’t believe spirituality was totally absent from Jewish thought and teaching; though they also recognised that Judaism seemed to have become so “outer focused” – on the correct performance of ritual acts – that much else seemed to have gone by the wayside.

The Hasidic tradition had recognised that imbalance and tried to redress it. In its origins, at least, it seemed to have been concerned with spiritual issues. Just think, for example, of the many stories like that of the shepherd boy who didn’t know the words of the prayers, but who played his penny whistle in the synagogue. The “pious” congregants were outraged; the wise rebbe, however, told them that he felt more kavannah, deeper spiritual intention, in that boy’s whistling than in all their prayers. Or of the rebbe who stops on the threshold of a synagogue because, he says, the people are saying all the correct words, but the atmosphere is devoid of kavannah.

Lawrence Hoffman professor of Jewish Liturgy, Prayer, at Hebrew Union College in New York, in a book called The Journey Home, subtitled Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition, explains how, in 1975, he was guest lecturer in the theology department of an American university, lecturing about the rituals of Pesach. After the lectures a woman remarked that he had spent a week talking about Pesach but never once addressed anything spiritual. “Isn’t there such a thing as Jewish spirituality?” she asked. He didn’t know how to reply, and says that since then he has spent time committed to discovering the spiritual foundations of Judaism.

For him spirituality is “very real, consistent with science, supremely important and Jewish to its core” It’s not ‘airy-fairy’, irrational, peripheral to Judaism. Spirituality suffuses Jewish teaching. Just consider Talmudic statements from nigh on 2000 years ago like “the pious of old would wait an hour before saying the Amidah.” Not to discuss who would win the chariot race in the Coliseum that afternoon, but to prepare themselves spiritually for engaging in an act of real prayer. Or the many statements, like the one attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, to the effect that whoever does not put something new into their prayer hasn’t really prayed. (Berachot 29a)

It’s easy for the correct performance of a ritual act to become an end in itself rather than simply a means to an end; just as it is equally easy for the search for spiritual meaning in life to turn us away from the world and our ethical obligations there.

So just what is spirituality?

Hoffman suggests that it is “our way of being in the world, the system of connectedness by which we make sense of our lives, how we overlay our autobiography in the making with a template of time and space and relationship that is vastly greater than we know ourselves individually to be. It is about finding our way to how we matter, the maps we use for things like history and destiny, the way we take a jumble of sensory data and shape it coherently into a picture, the way we know that we belong to the drama of the universe. It is the wonderfully enchanting but equally rational way we go on our way of growing up and growing older in the mysterious business we call life.” (page 17)

The concerns of previous Jewish generations were outward – to deal with the traumas of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel; to be accepted in society and to create ethnic communities.

The renewed interest in Jewish spirituality has been among the post-war “baby boomer” generation as they grew into adulthood and found that something, something spiritual, was missing from their lives. Pleasure, they came to see, isn’t necessarily the same as happiness. Questions about meaning and purpose remained unanswered by the material progress of their lives nor did the journey into other philosophies ultimately satisfy. They also wanted to be able to synthesize their Jewish identity with their other “identities” not deny or ignore it.

Hence the title The journey home – to a home Hoffman suggests many Jews never knew they had: “home to the deep down insights of Jewish tradition: its liturgy of blessings, its metaphors that connect life’s dots, its thrill of textual discovery, its rootedness in a sacred land, its honest spiritual thinking, its insistence on the simple presence of human meeting. It requires more than individual effort. It requires community.” (page 211)

So what was Rav Kahana doing under his master’s bed? 2000 years ago the Talmud recognized that there is no dimension of life which cannot be suffused with meaning beyond the reality of the act itself. There is no dichotomy in Jewish thinking between holy and profane, between the spiritual and the non-spiritual, between the religious and the non-religious. Everything has the potentiality to be imbued with the holy. Spirituality addresses that, spirituality addresses the major life-questions about meaning, purpose and direction, and how we can invest our lives with those things.

Spirituality is not divorced from the flow of everyday life – it is intimately bound up with it, it is a way of interpreting and understanding everyday life; seeing the greatness of small things, seeing nothing, in fact, as insignificant. The opposite of faith is not heresy, nor even non-belief. The opposite of faith is indifference; and  the opposite of spirituality is indifference to life itself.