By way of preface:
The "Jewish Spirituality" mailing list is an outgrowth of several conversations in which people told me that they felt "alone" in their quest to develop their relationship with Gd. I knew they weren't alone, just from my own interactions with other people, and so I extended an invitation to the Jewish community of Rhode Island to join in a weekly mailing list exploring issues within their relationship with HaShem.
Many of the messages posted on the list reflect people's personal struggles and sensitivities. As a result, some of the people who post remarks on this list opt to do so anonymously; they send me the e-mail, and I drop their names. The list is "blind cc'd," as well, so that no one knows who else is on the list. Our goal is that the members of this list should draw strength and inspiration from the words of their peers, and thereby continue to develop as Jews.
Welcome to Week Three of the Jewish Spirituality Mailing List.
3. Re: Priorities
4. Repairing the Relationship
5. Re: Maintaining Spirituality
By: Mordechai Torczyner
1. Just a word on my role here as moderator. I will not edit people's posts; if I feel there is something glaringly problematic in the material, I will respond privately to the poster and discuss the issue. As such, I just want to mention that I do not necessarily agree with or endorse any particular perspective in any particular post.
2. You will note that some of the posts here are long. We are dealing with deep topics, on which people spend a great deal of time in contemplation. Therefore, I encourage, rather than discourage, lengthy writing in this forum.
3. The "Subject" titles for each post are my own; please feel free to send your own, along with the post.
By: Alan Krinsky
Here are some thoughts in response to the topic of spirituality:
1. Without denying the value of spirituality or the spiritual fulfillment
to be gained in the performance of mitzvos, I think it is important to
remember that this should always be a secondary concern in our religious
life. In other words, there is a danger in basing too much on
spirituality, because when the spiritual rewards are not forthcoming, we
may be tempted to give up. However, we are obligated in the mitzvos
regardless of any benefit or reward.
2. Furthermore, I think we ought to pay attention to what's going on in the
larger society around us. Over the last decade or so in the United States
there has been a great concern with spirituality, as can be seen in all the
feature articles and even TV shows concerning angels. The particular
danger, it seems to me, is that this focus on angels and spirituality is a
distinctly American obsession with individuality, a
"what-can-I-get-out-of-it?" mentality. Americans seem to desire
"user-friendly" religion, as with their computers and most else. They want
a religion and G-d with many rewards and few demands. And the standard of
judgment is the individual: "what-does-not-meet-my-needs-I-reject."
3. We might view non-Orthodox "versions" of Judaism as approaching Judaism
from this perspective. The individual need observe only those rituals
which are personally meaningful, and where mitzvos do not match personal
meaning or contemporary value systems, they can be discarded.
4. So, I think we should be careful not to get caught up in what Rabbi
Benjamin Hecht calls "spiritual hedonism." The Torah requires that we
commit to the mitzvos, "na'aseh v'nishmah." If the spiritually-fulfilling
by-products come along to help us, all the better, but the ultimate value,
the end of our efforts cannot be the fulfillment of our spirituality.
5. Now, I write all of this with full awareness that I do find spiritual
rewards in my observance. And I do not know if I would have ever become
Ba'al Tshuvah without finding this spirituality, this answer to some inner,
unfulfilled needs. Without keeping Shabbos, without missing a Shabbos and
feeling that lack affecting my whole next week, would I ever have made this
return to tradition. So, in noting the dangers of a focus on spirituality,
I also do not wish to minimize its importance. And as those who know me
are aware, I do have, or long for, a Hasidic dimension to my Judaism. Like
many, many others, part of my return was the music and outreach of Rabbi
Shlomo Carlebach, z"l. I do think we could use some more of such an
approach, even on a communal level. I have thought often of bringing in
someone for a Carlebacher-style Shabbaton in Providence.
6. Finally, let me offer a thought, I think a powerful one, from a
defiantly anti-Chasidic source, Yeshiyahu Leibowitz, z"l. Leibowitz took a
very unsentimental approach to Judaism. In brief, he saw the commitment to
and observance of Halakha as the only thing providing continuity through
the ages. In his view, Kevanah, or intention, meant simply the intention
to fulfill a mitzvah. The story goes that a couple of Hasids approached
him, worried that they had not achieved sufficient Kevanah in their
davening. Leibowitz dismissed their worries. As long as they had intended
to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, they had succeeded in the mitzvah!
Whatever subjective feelings were stirred in their minds or hearts were
irrelevant to the practice and completion of the mitzvah. No such
feelings, which vary from person to person, could be relevant to successful
7. Now, one might wonder, what powerful insight about spirituality can be
found in the writings of such an unsentimental figure? Well, in explaining
the importance of Halakhah, Leibowitz places a lot of emphasis on
submission to the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvos. For Leibowitz,
this is a fundamental choice one makes, but I find it a powerful idea,
submission. Submission to G-d, to Torah, to mitzvos, turning one's life
over, recognizing that life is a gift and that our bodies are merely on
loan to be returned one day. Simply, we are here to serve HaShem. Our
observance of the mitzvos have no meaning outside of this context.
8. For Leibowitz, anything else is idolatry. For instance, to worship the
Land of Israel can become idolatry. And so can too great a focus on our
spirituality, on finding spiritual meaning and fulfillment. Leibowitz
would say that such a focus can become idolatry, serving oneself and one's
own needs, rather than serving HaShem.
9. But I would suggest that Leibowitz's warnings against idolatry and his
emphasis on submission to the yokes of heaven and Torah can themselves
provide profound spiritual meaning. To turn one's life over, to imagine
having the willingness to offer oneself as a sacrifice for HaShem, to try
to root out the tendencies towards idolatry of self or nation---I, at
least, find these ideas quite powerful. And though I by no means possess
any illusions that I have been totally successful in this act of
submission, though I have no illusions that I practice all of the mitzvos
properly, that I manage to perform the mitzvos simply and purely l'shem
Shamayim, I do find a deep sense of spirituality in the ideal commitment to
HaShem, as Leibowitz characterizes it.
10. And, to conclude, I do not think that the Leibowitzian position need by
any means contradict a concern with spirituality and the fulfillment of
spiritual needs. As long as we always remember to see our spiritual needs
NOT as ends of themselves, but rather as means to enhance our practice of
the mitzvos and service of HaShem, I do not see any problem.
Topic: Re: Priorities
By: Mordechai Torczyner
I think it is important, especially in light of Alan Krinsky's e-mail above, that we define Spirituality. Specifically, we need to distinguish between Spirituality and Spiritual Benefits.
Alan describes the search for spirituality as one which, essentially, is looking to gain from the Mitzvot on a personal level, via connection to Gd. I agree with Alan that there are people who "feel better" through the Mitzvos.
However, I submit that this me-oriented catharsis is not what many people who are searching for spirituality are trying to find. The search for spirituality stems from a feeling that "Rachmana Liba Ba'i," "Gd wants our hearts," to quote the Gemara (Sanhedrin 106b). There is a qualititative deficiency in our Mitzvos if we perform them by rote, as servants fulfilling an order, rather than as children of Gd, attempting to draw close to Him.
To quote Rav Klonimus Kalman Shapira, the Piazescner, in "Benei Machshavah Tovah" (translation mine), regarding the desire HaShem has planted in us: "It is not enough for us to be like a slave, son of a handmaiden, who also serves the king but does so behind the mill, far from the king, and does not hear the king's words and does not benefit from, and enjoy, his radiance. Such service is performed with a closed mind and a sealed heart. Our desire is to be on the level of 'You are children to HaShem, your Lord.'"
Subject: Repairing the Relationship
I wanted to raise a question to the readers of this
group, as it is something I've worked on all my life
with little success and something with which I need
help. My sense is that this might provoke some good
discussion from readers on this list, and might be
helpful to me in moving ahead on this issue.
The following is a Yiddish Folk saying that recently
caught my attention- "The best minister is the human
heart; the best teacher is time; the best book is the
world; the best friend is G-d."
What caught my eye most in this quote was the last
part about G-d being best friend. I'm not sure that
this metaphor is quite right, but I think the
underlying sentiment that G-d is on your side or the
one who is most caring for you is right, in a sense.
The 'in a sense' part is the part of me that wants to
feel that way, but admittedly does not. I want to feel
that G-d and I are on the same team (of sorts), but in
my best days I feel that He is indifferent to me. In
my worst, I feel our relationship is more of an
adversarial nature. For sure, it effects both the
quantity and quality of my avodah, and I would like to
move beyond this point to feel more positively about
In trying to make progress on this issue, I've have
spent much time undergoing an hakoras hatov (an
accounting of the good) in the ways that G-d has dealt
with me. My thinking was that my experiences in life
might feel less uncaring on G-d's part, if I was able
to hold the good with the perceived bad. Again, at
times, it does manage to do that for me. Yet, when I
am more negative about what has happened in my life,
it continues to feel as though the bad heavily (and
unacceptably) outweighs the good.
As a result, I do not harbor good feelings in my
relationship with G-d. I feel a lack of love, support
and concern, generally. And, I want to change that
perception, but don't know where to go with these
feelings and beliefs. I've heard many of the standard,
orthodox rejoinders to this sort of problem. I know
that the appeal is generally to some higher wisdom
that knows what is best for you and that if one were
at a sufficiently high elevation- the love and support
would be apparent.
In truth, I find these explanations to be
over-simplified and dismissing of my feelings as a
person. Clearly, there are people in this world (and I
may be one of them) from whom particular blessings are
permanently withheld. And, it is not consoling to
think that were I more elevated, I'd appreciate why I
cannot be blessed in the ways that most are. I'm not
more elevated, and I don't imagine appreciating my
circumstances much more were I to be. That is simply a
trivializing of personal tragedy. It makes me feel
alienated from my tradition when such suggestions are
made. I have sought counsel from many rabbeim who
usually don't have more to contribute than what I
already know or don't want to address the issue with
me in the first place.
I suppose this lengthy preamble is meant to put the
question out to list readers of how do people manage
their relationship with G-d in a meaningful way, when
they feel that they are not being given what they want
and need in life from Him? How do you continue to
maintain the enthusiasm or at least the interest in
pursuing the relationship? How do people repair the
relationship when they are problems between you and
G-d? What lessons from other kinds of relationships
and the ways in which we manage those can be
transferred in repairing our relationship with G-d?
This is a heart-felt and very painful question for me
to deal with in my life to which thoughtful, caring
responses would be most appreciated.
Subject: Re: Maintaining Spirituality
By: Mordechai Torczyner
Elaine Saklad pointed out last week that "building up spirituality" before an activity helps make it more fulfilling.
I wonder: Do we benefit more from "Building up spirituality" by:
A. Focussing on the particular meaning of the particular activity we are doing, or
B. Focussing on a general "I am doing what Gd wants, and that will bring me closer to Him" thought? or
C. Is it different for each person?
I think this difference is important, in shaping practical personal ways to come closer to Gd.
Have a good Shabbos,
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