Rabbi Yitzhak, May/June 2012
Many of us think of ourselves as spiritual rather than religious people. There is something difficult in the word religion that many struggle with. Perhaps there is a sense of confinement and restriction, limitations and obligations. I’m really not sure what it is that is so bothersome about the word “religion.” Perhaps it’s because so much destruction has been caused in religion’s name. It’s something I wonder about. In contrast the same people may very well feel quite good about recognizing themselves as “spiritual” while not “religious.” This word somehow implies openness and freedom, something much lighter and more natural and easier to carry. It connotes something more accessible and certainly no less valuable than being religious.
Religion seems a bit stuffy, stiff, even museum-like as opposed to having the vitality of a flowing spirituality.
I remember in the sixties how so many young adult Jews were seeking and finding a spiritual life in Eastern religions. They found little spirituality in their inherited Jewish tradition and yet had a profound yearning for a life in which their spirituality could be lived fully. The Jewish thing was too cumbersome and loaded up with Jewish American cultural complexities that did not appeal to the spiritual seekers of the time. “Jewish religion” seemed to require learning a difficult foreign language in order to pray, and prayer itself was so formalized and formulated that it had little or no meaning for most American Jews. These Jews had no real sense of the history of the development of those prayers or any other personal framework with which to embrace their inherited religion. It was a pretty hard sell to get the attention and commitment of those young spiritually hungry folks. Obscure Jewish traditions were not selling well and anyway, who needed the dangers of anti-Semitism as an add-on? It made a lot of sense to go seeking in the worlds of Sufism, Sikhism, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga and so forth. This was soul food without all of the difficult to manage baggage. As the well-known spiritual teacher Ram Das, Richard Alpert, once famously said, “I’m Jewish on my parent’s side of the family.” He spoke well as an exemplar of that generation. These seekers sought and they found.
After those years of exploration many have come back with a deep awareness of the richness of having a spiritual practice. With freshened eyes some have discovered the spiritual practices so rich and ubiquitous in their inherited Jewish traditions. If you scratch a little bit beneath the surface of many of our leading contemporary rabbis, you will find seasoned practitioners of yoga, meditation and other practices they found on their journeys. Many have integrated the lessons learned through that period of intense spiritual focus and have enriched their Jewish lives and understanding, gaining sincere and insightful appreciation for Jewish practices through perspectives learned elsewhere.
Do we have “spiritual practice” in Judaism? Yes.
Let me give a couple examples of Jewish spiritual practices drawing a bit from my own life experience. I remember as a young child being taught about the tradition to immediately upon awakening into the morning say, or actually sing, a sweet little melody with the words beginning, “I give thanks…modeh ani”
WOW! What a great way to enter each new day. What a simple yet powerful practice. That practice can be a mood shaper for the morning and in the long run, perhaps influence character development toward the cultivation of a deep sense of gratitude. This simple, yet wonderfully precious practice could easily be lost if we did not see it for its simple and beautiful essence. It could be overlooked in the immensity of our tradition, or disregarded because of the Hebrew barrier, or the general “too muchness” of our ancient tradition. We can miss the opportunity to experience the countless Jewish spiritual practices that are or can be made accessible. This simple practice is about the wonderful human capacity to turn our hearts toward gratitude as a first thought for the day and to cultivate a sense that our individual life can address the All of Life with a sense of connection and appreciation.
I love that we have that tradition in our treasure box of spiritual practices. How about this one: Stopping and pausing for a few seconds before munching on a snack or partaking in a meal. Pause and be present to consider what it is that is resting on the plate before you. It is life itself that has grown in the fields, in the orchards, perhaps been on a long journey in the sea before arriving through many human efforts to come before you as nourishment. Our tradition offers a spiritual practice to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment of anticipation of nourishment. We bless the mystery of life that sustains us through these wonderful ways. We remember the trees, the field, and the water and all the ways that life has brought us this nourishment. We may take only a brief moment to reflect on this awareness as we say a short blessing perhaps in Hebrew, or in English. Consider the worth of a spiritual practice that cultivates our personal connection and dependence on the vitality of life in all of its forms as they support and sustain our own life. We dwell for a moment in a sense of awe at the mystery of life. We are part of a great oneness, and it is that awareness which our tradition nurtures in us. If we are not comfortable with the Hebrew, don’t let it be a barrier to the experience of uttering a blessing. The essence of blessing is completely accessible and available for our frequent use in developing a spiritual practice that can elevate our sense of the value and meaning of our lives and the All of Life.