Monday, March 31, 2008

Spirituality and Religion


Sometimes the most profound truths are discovered in the unlikliest of places. The Jewish theologian Arthur Green saw this earlier, when he came across a personals ad in the New York Jewish Week. It was written by a woman who described herself in this way: "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not religious. Seeking like-minded JM, etc."

This young women should indeed be of interest to us. Green sees her as an icon of our age. We can assume that she has a pretty good idea of what she means by "spiritual, not religious," but do we? Let's speculate about her. You can meet her, along with a great many other Jews, at an Ashram retreat, where she goes for a weekend of yoga, massage, a lecture on spiritual teachings, healthy vegetarian food and conversations with like-minded people. You will not meet her at your synagogue, Green notes, from which she continues to feel alienated. But she fasts and meditates on Yom Kippur, a day that has some special meaning to her. She reads both Sufi and Hasidic stories. She used to go to Shlomo Carlebach concerts. Passover with her family is still a boisterous, "totally unspiritual," as she would say, affair. But one year her folks were on a cruise and she got to go to a women's Passover Seder, and she liked it, although it was a little too verbal for her tastes.

Spiritual, not religious... I hear it all the time. Who is this woman who wrote that personal ad? What turned her off? And what could turn her on to Judaism again? Why did she feel so alienated from her parents' synagogue? Why did she leave it so far behind? And how can we get her back?

Her problem is a reflection of her generation, to be sure, those in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Generation X. But it really is endemic to society as a whole. Look at any bookstore and you'll see aisles devoted to what people have come to know as "spirituality." Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin went into a Barnes and Noble one day and counted three bookcases for Judaism, three for general religion and Christianity, two each for Bible, and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including astrology, psychic phenomena, tarot, goddess worship, witchcraft, out-of-body experiences and reincarnation, angels, Satanism and the occult, the channeling of spiritual energy and faith healing, yoga and transcendental meditation, holistic health and healing crystals.

Spirituality can mean all of these things and more, everything, except for what we do in a church or synagogue. Spirituality books are at the tops of all the best seller lists. Films are into spirituality big-time, especially Disney, which in consecutive years brought us African animism in the Lion King and Native American environmentalism in "Pocahontas."

So what is the difference between all this and what people perceive as religion? In a nutshell: Pocahontas talking to an enchanted tree and living peacefully among the birds and forest animals: that's spirituality. Pocahontas receiving a dues statement from her local synagogue: that's religion. The Lion King feeling whole, purposeful and connected to the entire circle of life: that's spirituality. And the Lion King forgetting how to read Hebrew therefore never coming to services because he feels real uncomfortable: that's religion.

I serve on the clergy team of my local hospice organization, and recently the staff tried to better understand the difference between pastoral and spiritual care. In this seminar and accompanying articles, spirituality was defined as "the gas, the organizing center of one's life which radiates from within," and religion as, "the vehicle, an expression of culture; a set of predetermined standards and practices."

By this definition, religion is seen as a lifeless shell; spirituality, which can exist independent of religious structures, is the true source of vitality. The explosive proliferation of 12-step groups, some of which have a pro-spirituality anti-religion bias, tells us even more about the perception that our institutional religious vehicles have run out of gas.

We in the religion biz a have a big problem. The market is booming, but the customers aren't heading in our direction. A recent Gallup poll shows a marked increase in those who say spiritual matters are important in their lives; but the same poll shows that church affiliation and attnendance are down. Spiritual themes are everywhere; even on Madison Avenue. A computer company got into the act recently, by calling its latest hardware an "out of box experience." The Washington Post reports that interest in the power of prayer and divine intervention is clearly growing and even gaining some credibility as an area of scientific study. To document this trend, the Post noted that for the first time ever, the National Institute of Health is funding research into the effects of spirituality. In the fall of 1993 a fledgling alternative medicine department at the NIH awarded a $30,000 to a researcher hoping to measure the impact of prayer on the recovery of drug users.

With people clamoring for transcendence as never before in our lifetime, and with the normal fin de siecle and end of millennium religious frenzies building, and they are, and with hucksters everywhere cashing in on this massive selling of soul, we can't even get Pocahontas to come to services.

And why should she? There's passion in nature. There's life. Theres' God. And what does she get in synagogue? If she's lucky, an ark opening on the High Holidays.

We've got to restore "the gas" to our sanctuaries, classrooms and board rooms. Mainline Protestantism, discouraged by declining church membership, has recently tried to rediscover passion in its practices. American Judaism, which for too long desired to become Protestantized and succeeded all to well, must now follow suit with its own critique of pure reason.

My point is that Judaism is a spiritual entity, that the dichotomy drawn by that woman from the personal ad, and by so many of us, is a false one. This vehicle is not an empty shell. So how do we get that woman, and Pocahontas, to come through the sanctuary doors?

...Bringing Pocahontas Back to Religion

One way is to knock down these doors. We have to begin to bring God out of this sanctuary and into the world around us. Not just the trees and flowers, but into our actions, attitudes and even our language. We must understand that the sacred resides everywhere, if only we would begin to notice it.

In her book, "Ordinarily Sacred," Lynda Sexson, tells the story of an only man who showed her a china cabinet filled with items related to his deceased wife. This was a sacred box, she says, in the tradition of the Ark of the Covenant. Emily Dickenson had her forty nine ribboned packets of poems, carefully written and stored. We all have these sacred books and boxes. If a hurricane were heading toward our home, and we could take away only one thing, what would it be? My guess is that most of us the answer would grab a photo album, a video tape of the last wedding, a box of letters, a notebook of thoughts, a volume of dreams, these are the things that connect us to something deeper than our own lives, to other people, to our ancestry, to our dreams. This is the stuff of spirituality. The stuff that makes us laugh and, most of all, cry. The stuff that guides us and terrifies us for the thought of losing them. The ordinary things -- that are religious.
Psalm 90 says it all, "Teach us to number our days, that we might attain a knowing heart." When I began writing in a journal twenty years ago, that daily exercise became a profound part of my Judaism. These twenty books have become my sacred canon. My collection of old newspapers, or match books from restaurants, and my videos and photos, these help me to connect the dots of my life, enabling it to have meaning. And that's all from Psalm 90. That is spirituality -- that is Judaism.

Thomas Moore, who has made quite a splash with his two books, "Soulmates" and "Care of the Soul," writes in the latter, "The spirituality that feeds the soul and ultimately heals our psychological wounds may be found in those sacred objects that dress themselves in the accoutrements of the ordinary."

At a rabbinic retreat I attended a few years ago, my group performed a cultural inventory of the ordinary things that have become part of our sacred world. My assignment was to write a museum-style description of the hidden meaning found in a box of Golden's blintzes. Next time you're at the store, look at it closely. There is actually a note from Grandma on the box. Grandma is telling you that she made these blintzes just for you. When you open this box and fry these blintzes -- for godsakes please don't microwave them -- Grandma's kitchen will appear somewhere in the recesses of the mind, or at least the nose. OK, so the blintzes are mass-produced, and OK, so I believe the company was bought out by a Japanese conglomerate, it doesn't matter, because the box says Grandma made it. And you know, when I eat Golden's blintzes, sometimes I cry, because I think of my Bubbe's potato kugel, which has passed form this earth never to return.

So the box is part of my spiritual life as an American Jew, as are shlocky New Years cards and wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs. These little things help along the process of imbuing the world with God's image, because Godliness is nothing more than the creation of order, and meaning where there was chaos before. And Jews have another word for how we create order out of chaos: kedusha -- holiness. As Jeffrey Salkin put it, "Holiness is where spirituality becomes Judaism." As Jews do Jewish things, these acts increase our sense of holiness, and through them we connect ourselves to our history, to God and to that ubiquitous, ill-defined thing called spirituality.

Spirituality is also about social action. Spirituality is about healing others, it is about giving selflessly, it is about sharing deep insights and terrifying fears, it is about glowing candles and incessant questioning from children. It is about life and death and life from death -- in short, it is about everything that organized religion does twenty four hours a day,
And -- it's about dues, and leaky roofs and staff hirings, and yes, although I shudder to say it, it's about politics too. Spirituality is about forming a community and making it work. One night while Web-surfing I came across a discussion group on the subject of why people don't affiliate with synagogues. I think that woman from the personals ad must have been one of the contributors -- there were about fifty in all. They recited the entire litany of depressing things we all know too well, the high cost, the cliquishness that turned them off, the politics.

We all detest dirty politics. But that is exactly the point. The synagogue has to be the place where the politics of the place enhance godliness and spirituality. There is a deep spirituality to politics, when it works, when it brings people together. Unlike much New Age spirituality, Judaism requires community. You can't just escape to India to seek a guru. You've got to stick around and make it work here, where it is most difficult, within the community. But when we succeed, and it is so hard to succeed, when the end result is a community where people share basic values and truly care for one another, that can produce the greatest spiritual high of all. It is a feeling of belonging that we all crave. It is one I know we can achieve. Once we've created that, dues and other mundane matters become far less distasteful; in fact, tzedakkah (charity) becomes an obligation we gladly take on. And Pocahontas leads the parade with her little blue box.

Spirituality is about all the little things we do every day, the choices we make that tilt the world just lightly more in the direction of life. The little questions become profound moral decisions. Like what do we eat for dinner? Judaism stands for life, but says, OK, you can kill some animals, but only in ritually-prescribed ways. The Torah always comes down on the side of life. So eat meat, it says, but beware, because animals are sacred, and even more sacred is man, the next step up.

Spirituality is about how we use language. To speak in cliches is to use dead language. I weigh carefully each word that I write or utter. And to use language as a weapon, to gossip, that is truly the way of death. The ancient sages indeed equated gossip with murder, spiritual murder, which kills the image of God for three people: the subject, the teller of the tale, and the one who hears it.

In Judaism, every decision is one of life and death, there is nothing that is morally neutral. If we become couch potatoes, that is choosing death. So working out then becomes a choice of life; a profoundly Jewish spiritual act.

Albert Einstein put it best: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is. Choose."

As I've grown, I've come to recognize these miracles more and more. I suppose having children does that, to a degree, but it is also one of the blessings of my job. I recognize them because I see so many. I see so many supposedly ordinary people doing extraordinary things, people who hold off the angel of death for one final night or hour so to see some loved one through to the achievement of a personal milestone. I see the miracle of dedication allow people with average ability to soar to incredible heights. I think that's why Cal Ripkin became such a national hero this month. Gary Rosenblatt wrote in The Jewish Week, "Cal Ripkin, playing his position day in and day out with grace and efficiency, confidence and calmness, reminds us that our task is not to perform miracles but to keep our focus and do our little bit, one day at a time." And in truth, that's how miracles are made.

Within each of us is a soul that can be ignited by the pure oxygen of organized religion. We can go outside and join Pocahontas and listen to the spirit of God rustling in the trees and that too can set our souls ablaze. The early Hasidim called it "Hitlahavut," from the Hebrew word "lahav," "to set ablaze," as a means of cleaving to God with all our being.

This is no empty vehicle then, the sanctuary, that we invite our friend from the personals ad to enter again. We agree with her completely. Spirituality, God, is the pure oxygen that can ignite our souls. Religion, Judaism, is exactly the same.

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