What is Spiritual about Judaism?

Posted on 09/02/2022 @ 06:00 AM

Tags: Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Have you ever asked yourself that question?
That was the title of the workshop I, as CAJE’s Executive Director, led for Federation staff this week.
First, I started by asking participants to think about when they have felt spirituality or felt spiritual and write it down on notecards. You could do that right now (or in your head).
Where have you felt spirituality / spiritual / G!D?
When have you felt spirituality / spiritual / G!D?
How have you felt spirituality / spiritual / G!D?
Methodologically, this gives everyone time to reflect and listen to what their hearts are prompting. It also gives those who don’t think well “on their feet” or aren’t “out loud” thinkers more time to marshal their thoughts.
Then, we each shared what we had written and remarkably, found that while everyone had different perspectives, there were a lot of commonalities.
Spirituality was about connection— to ourselves within, to nature, to other people, to a higher consciousness or a Higher Power.
Spirituality was sometimes about transcendence and wonder— feeling how small we are in a huge, awesome universe, in relation to an infinite, eternal One.
Spirituality was sometimes about immanence and going inwards— feeling the G!Dliness within, finding the spark of Divinity inside ourselves.
Spirituality came at peak moments of joy and also of sorrow; in nature and during song; while performing rituals and when working on something that had meaning or purpose.
Each person has their own path to spirituality. Sadly, there is not one recipe we can all follow.
We then looked at a classic spiritual text from the Book of Tehillim / Psalms 16:8-9 often called by its first word: Shiviti

8 I have set YHWH [pronounced “A-do-nai”] before me continuously; YHWH is at my side, I shall not be moved.

9 Therefore my heart is full of joy, and my soul rejoices; my being is secure.

These words are occasionally used in synagogues and homes as a focus point (Hindus call it a drishtifor spiritual contemplation. I have these words on a beautiful piece of art right outside my front door so when I leave and return, just like the prompting of the mezuzah, I bring a consciousness of G!Dliness with me.
The words of Shiviti remind us to strive for a continuous awareness of G!D at all times, just as the ner tamid/ the continuously lit lamp in front of the ark reminds us of the same in synagogue.
Note Shiviti also references connection and relationship -“before me continuously” and “at my side.”
When we feel that, we feel secure and strong – “I shall not be moved” and “my being is secure.”
And as a result, we may experience joy that binds heart, soul and body together in a deep, profound way.
We then read over definitions of spirituality from other thinkers and rabbis:
  • Attunement to the rhythms of the universe
  • Noticing the wonder
  • A process of striving to meet God
  • Becoming conscious of God
  • That sense of higher purpose that guides our daily lives
  • When we really know that we are standing before the Ultimate Source of Reality

We discussed how when encountering a subject as open-ended as spirituality, it is often helpful to have a guide, a teacher, a rabbi or a rebbe.
How do we find spirituality or create it?
We explored the well-known teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe, 19th century) who once asked his student:
Where does God dwell?” The student responded: “Rebbe, everyone knows that God dwells everywhere!
“No!” exclaimed the Kotzker. “God dwells wherever we let God in!”
And indeed, could both be true? I think so.
God is indeed “everywhere.” There is no place devoid of spirituality and Godliness in this world.
And yet, we don’t perceive it, unless we let God in or attune ourselves to see it.
With spirituality, and perhaps with all the creative arts, one must “believe” (be open to the reality of) in order to “perceive,” rather than the opposite.
Finally, Judaism happens to be an ideal tradition in which to find spirituality through the physical world, because our tradition asks us to elevate (rather than deny or denigrate) the sensual and physical to the level of holiness, often through prayer and blessing.
You woke up today? Bless the moment with the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer! I like to sing it to the tune “You are my sunshine.”
You are about to eat a delicious piece of fruit? Bless the moment with “Borei Pri HaEtz” or another appropriate blessing.
You saw lightening? (It’s Florida, of course you did!) There’s a blessing for that too.
And then my handout we ended with a quotation from Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro’s book Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity
Jewish spiritual practice…awakens the self to its inseparability from the One…Within Judaism there is no dichotomy between everyday life and holiness. Your charge is to be holy and to make the world holy…You are asked to manifest holiness in the ordinary events of your everyday life. Make eating holy. Make conversation holy. Make sleeping holy. Make sex holy. Making life holy requires you to see all things as manifestations of God, the Source and Substance of all that was, is, and will be.
Think of something in Judaism that helps you feel spiritual. Try to make it a practice, meaning a daily or weekly discipline, that will help you feel greater connection and remind you to care for your soul.