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.
Re: Maintaining spirituality
Question about Spiritual Levels
Subject: Re: Maintaining spirituality
I could relate very much to Elaine Saklad's message about the challenges of
feeling spiritually fulfilled while performing the details of the
mitzvot. I have found that I also benefit from "building up spirituality"
before certain activities. To respond to Rabbi Torczyner's question about
how we build spirituality, I have discovered that I benefit most from
focusing on the particular meaning of the particular activity.
For example- Davening. During my recent studying of certain prayers I have
found incredible new meaning to the words which I have been uttering since
I was a child. I feel so much more inspired now that I have a deeper
understanding of the prayer. This inspiration has come from studying the
meaning. For me, the attitude of "I am doing what Gd wants and that will
bring me closer to Him" alone is not enough to keep me spiritually
fulfilled in the area of davening. Reciting words without grasping their
meaning leaves me feeling empty.
I have noticed that holidays are an important time for me to "rebuild up
spirituality." I recognize that some years the chaggim seem to come and go
so quickly that I feel like I "missed" them. It is easy (especially for
women) to get trapped into doing all the physical preparations of Yom Tov
(cleaning, cooking, etc.) before the spiritual preparations because they
are concrete things that "have to get done." However I definitely notice
that when I do make time to attend classes or read something new about an
upcoming holiday, I feel more connected to it and it becomes more
meaningful to me.
Subject: Question about spiritual levels
One thing which I have heard many times in classes that I have attended is
"we are on a lower spiritual level than people of past generations." What
does this mean? What exactly is meant by "spiritual level?" This confuses
me and leaves me frustrated because it then seems that no matter how hard
we work today we cannot achieve what our ancestors did. I will probably
receive the answer that each individual can always grow closer to Hashem
and improve his own personal level but this answer does not always satisfy me.
Subject: Re: Priorities
By: Alan Krinsky
I welcome Rabbi Torcyner's comments on my initial posting about the dangers
of "spiritual hedonism." I do not at all disagree, and I find much value
in distinguishing between this egocentric motivation, on the one hand, and
the longing to approach Gd, on the other.
The question this distinction raises for me is this: what do we make of
this idea that Gd plants this longing within us? Is it a basic need of all
human beings, akin to physical hunger? Is it a natural need that needs
fulfillment? If so, perhaps we can better understandthe variety of
religions and idolatries out there, even materialism. However, is this
really how we are designed? I, for one, feel this longing fairly strongly,
and I think my longing for something meaningful, even during my many years
as an agnostic, can partially explain my eventual return to Judaism as a
young adult. And yet, I know many people, it seems, even religiously
observant people, who appear to lack almost entirely any such spiritual
inclinations or longings. How can we explain this? To those of us who
feel a spiritual hunger, the absence of it seems almost as perplexing as
the absence of physical hunger, a truly universal sensation.
I realize this is in a way a side issue to the larger question of how to
make our observance of the mitzvos more meaningful, but perhaps an
exploration of it could help towards addressing the greater issue.
Subject: Re: Priorities
>4. So, I think we should be careful not to get caught
>up in what Rabbi Benjamin Hecht calls "spiritual
I think Alan is quite right here in his caution around
hedonistic motivations regarding spiritual growth. In
fact, I would claim that, in a very real sense,
hedonism stands in direct contradiction to genuine,
spiritual growth. Spiritual growth, imho, is a process
of becoming less and less 'me' focused and becoming
more and more G-d directed. Please note, however, that
it is both a process and is incremental in nature. As
an aside, I would say that I am most worried when I
hear recent baalei teshuvot (those who have returned
to a Torah way of life) tell me that they either have
turned or will turn their entire lives over to G-d in
one fell swoop. Sudden, large-scale and dramatic
change is one of the most proven ways to ultimate
failure that I know.
In any case, I would dare say that this model is along
a very long continuum and needs to be understood as
such. I can certainly say that I have never met (and
this is not meant in any way as a slight to anyone) a
single soul who is totally G-d centered. I think this
is outside the boundaries of human capabilities. I
believe that our challenge, as humans (and Jews, in
particular) is to use the G-d and the Gedolim of the
Torah to measure our place on the continuum and find
ways to move closer and closer to Him through Torah
and mitzvos. I have gone afield here, but I had wanted
to say more on how I conceive of spiritual growth.
In any case, I would want to add on to Rabbi
Torczyner's comments regarding the desire of Jewish
people, 'as children of Gd, attempting to draw close
to Him...' What is implicit here in this statement is
the relationship in which we participate with Him.
Anyone with even limited experience in Torah is well
aware of the focus that Yiddishkeit places on G-d and
His impact on the olam (physical world). The press
given to G-d and His role in our history as a people
is more than evident in our holy literature. I think
what is missing for many Jews (both secular and frum)
is the lack of focus on the individual. This, imho, is
quite different from hedonism. This says that, while I
want to disavow myself of the notion that the world
revolves just around me, it must also leave room for
me to find personal meaning in my own existence.
For me, hedonism says, in some way, the world is about
me, so how can connecting to G-d help me? That is its
sole question. Or, at least we can say that is its
overriding concern. I think that healthy spirituality,
recognizing that there is a relationship between G-d
and each individual, leaves room for individual wants,
needs and interactions.
I'm not thinking or suggesting that this means that
the human half of the relationship dictates what is ok
and what is not (i.e., can dictate halachah and/or
haskafah). This is tantamount to the hedonistic view.
But, what I am saying is that recognizing the
relationship means paying attention *both* to what G-d
wants from each Jew, as well as what the individual
Jew needs and wants, in order to continue to engage in
the relationship with G-d.
I think what I am observing (and wanting to point out)
is that both the hedonistic view and the view that
claims the only focus is G-d are exclusive views that
don't take the relationship much into account. I would
advocate of an inclusive view that claims that both
participants have needs (in vastly differing senses)
that must be addressed in the context of the
relationship. I would say that the more egregious
error is committed by the hedonist. But, I think the
other point of view negates the importance of the
relationship in another way. When Alan says that
'Leibowitz places a lot of emphasis on submission to
the yoke of heaven and the yoke of mitzvos' and
'Simply, we are here to serve HaShem. Our observance
of the mitzvos have no meaning outside of this
context', I am left with the question (with which I
suspect many Jews remain) of 'Where am I in all this,
A healthy relationship, of any kind, is one in which
both parties in it are valued and respected. For
example, no parent-child relationship can work, if
both the parent and the child are not respected in the
proper ways, whatever those may be. It goes without
saying that, because of the vast difference between
G-d and human beings, what is valued and what is
respected will be quite different. The important thing
here to notice, I would say, is that each party in the
appropriate way is valued and respected. Each part of
the relationship has meaning and importance in their
own way, which must be acknowledged and supported, in
order for the relationship to continue and prosper.
I think ultimately that the supreme posture for a Jew
is in the nullification of the will. I think this is
what Moshe Rabbeinu came to model for us. But, as the
Torah states, only someone of Moshe's status is
capable of that feat. I am certainly not saying that
G-d did not place ultimate value and respect on Moshe,
Heaven forbid. What I am saying is that, even though
He did, G-d recognizes that the rest of us have needs
that are not identical with His. G-d recognizes the
human condition. I think that quality in us is valid
and part of what makes us wonderfully human. It is by
design, in that we have a soul encased in a physical
body. I think that the task at hand, from a Jewish
point of view (what G-d is asking us to do), is to get
on the path of letting go of those needs, with the
assumption that we will probably not be entirely
successful. Find ways to help your soul dominate your
behavior and your physical being acquiesce. It is that
very struggle to let go that builds our spiritual
muscle. It is the effort that we put in, to not give
in to our baser desires, that creates the attachments
to G-d. But, I think what most productively fosters
this kind of work is the recognition and valuing of
the individual needs and wants, with an ironic eye to
letting go of as many as we can over time.
Subject: Re: Priorities
By: Mordechai Torczyner
Just to note one point which amplifies the anonymous message above about Priorities: The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos which tells us to annul our desires for Gd's desires also has a flip-side ending: "In order that He should annul His desires for yours."
It is, indeed, a relationship. Annulling one's self to another does not prevent the "other" from annulling himself to you.
Subject: Removing Distractions
By: Mordechai Torczyner
One way to increase our sensitivity to HaShem's Presence might be to attempt to remove some of the distractions around us.
These distractions aren't limited to physical entities; the distractions are also in our attitudes and activities.
To start us off, I'll list one activity - talking to other people, or greeting them, in shul. I am not speaking of the Halachic problems now; let's say it is a time when you are permitted to talk, in the davening. Let's further stipulate that the speech is a type of speech which is not empty, and so it is permitted in a shul.
The speech we have described is entirely permissible - but doesn't it take away from our concentration? Doesn't it draw us away from focussing on our relationship with Gd?
I would welcome additions to the list of common distractions.
Have a good Shabbos,
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