I take the rise of “spirituality” over the past few decades to point to the dying of old religious forms and the movement to create new ones, while also infusing some of the old ones with new energy, meaning and purpose.
Martin Buber once wrote, in an essay titled “Jewish Religiosity,” (printed in On Judaism) about this very phenomenon. Speaking as both a religious philosopher and historian, he illuminated the life-cycle of religious movements: they are born, usually under a charismatic leader who has identified a new way to connect with the Transcendent One; a community gathers together around that vision and its practices; it grows in fervor, following and practice; until, at some future point, the new practices become old, are done by rote, and a new generation sets out to seek its own connection with transcendence, rejecting the old in favor of the new. And the cycle begins anew.
Buber identified both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity having sprung in this fashion from Israelite religion and, as another example, our mystical tradition and Chassidic Judaism emerging from the later fossilization, as their adherents saw it, of Rabbinic Judaism. Likewise, with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of our own period.
The ascendance of spirituality is practically coterminous with my rabbinate, so I have had a lot of time to think about it. Myself, I have brought, intentionally, practices to the communities that I have served to create a spirituality that seemed often lacking. At the same time, I have stuck with “organized religion” (who invented that term? I’ve worked in so-called organized religion for forty-plus years and nothing at all seems organized about it!) because there are elements of a full life that I don’t see available in spirituality.
To begin with spirituality. I can identify five valuable elements typically identified as spirituality.
First, there is a seeking of connection that is more immediate and intimate than is available in everyday life. Second, it features the significance of each individual’s personal experience. Third, there is an insistence on the engagement of the whole individual, adding the importance of the emotions one feels and the body one inhabits to the ideas that one thinks. Fourth, there is an emphasis on holiness that transcends the sometime narrowness of holding to one, particular religion. And, fifth, there is a de-emphasis on what some might identify as “trappings” – for example, buildings that command many resources, and the money needed to pay for buildings and staff.
But there are weaknesses as well, some of which relate to its very strengths. All too often, I’m afraid, spirituality becomes synonymous with Maslow’s “peak experiences”: the beauty of the seashore, the awe induced by the Grand Canyon. I call this the “big bang theory” of spirituality. But spirituality can be wider than that. And less than that. And more mundane than that.
Likewise, spirituality sometimes becomes so individualistic that it negates the possibility of community – a spirituality shared with others in an ongoing fashion. Also a victim to an extreme degree of individualism is the ability to tolerate being with people who are other than ourselves. At its worst, the individualism of spirituality becomes a reflection of a consumer society in which “it’s all about me” – self-indulgent, rather than seeking out ways to be with, and serve, others.
And one final question: how does one share spirituality with the next generation? How does one pass it along? That may or may not be your concern, but it always has been a Jewish one.
To be sure, religion has its weaknesses and intolerance, its ego and its evil as well. Through history, the sins perpetrated in the name of religion are innumerable. But let me speak for a moment to some places in which religion speaks to spirituality’s weakness.
The root of the word religion is ligare/ligamentum – the same root as in ligament, something that binds. In the case of religion, it binds people together and it binds them to something that transcends them. To be bound often has a negative connotation to our modern ears, but when one binds oneself to something good, great good can be achieved.
Specifically, through our religious tradition we Jews bind ourselves to a past: to a particular people, history and tradition. We are not born into a vacuum; we have a past that situates us in the world. While we are free to shape our identity and destiny, we also have a starting place and a particular identity. We are the beneficiaries of time-tested insights – the wisdom of the rabbis, for example – and time-tested tools – the rituals of sacred time and space. These gifts we receive are not perfect; being the creations of our ancestors, they bear the imperfections that any human attempt to apprehend the Transcendent One will carry. However – and as did our ancestors – we are free to modify them where they are lacking.
We also bind ourselves together in a contemporary community. We celebrate our commonly held values. We visit the world’s ills. We know joy, together, and we know sorrow, together. We support one another when a parent dies, when a child suffers, when we, ourselves, fall ill. We create music, friendship and prayer when joy is lacking elsewhere.
We bind ourselves to humanity, to the society in which we live. We affirm that the world ought to be made better and we reiterate our commitment to do that work of repair. For every instance of hatred perpetrated in the name of God, there is also a hospital, a counseling center, a Catholic Charities that feeds, supports and houses someone in need.
And, finally, we bind ourselves to God. Where spirituality might focus on the joy and insight that the world might provide for me, religion asks me about the joy and insight, the love and compassion that I might bring to the world. The worst aspects of spirituality make it yet another victim of our consumer culture. The best aspects of religion challenge us to rise above the self-indulgence of our culture and to bind myself to something higher, something better.
The place where the two meet, of course, is at that point, for both a true spirituality and a true religiosity, I believe, force us to look, to seek, to focus on something beyond ourselves. And then, in binding ourselves to others, to our tradition and people, and to God we connect ourselves to something more universal, more true, more lasting than the four or five-score years that are allotted to us.
Thus, I have tried to bring the best of modern spirituality together with the best of traditional religiosity in a community that is alive with both.
I look forward to discussing this topic with you this coming Shabbat morning.