Jewish Spirituality
Volume 3

By way of preface:

Volume 3


Welcome to Week Three of the Jewish Spirituality Mailing List.


1. Administrivia
2. Priorities
3. Re: Priorities
4. Repairing the Relationship
5. Re: Maintaining Spirituality


Subject: Administrivia
By: Mordechai Torczyner

Three Notes:

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.


Subject: Priorities
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 observance.

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.'"


By: Anonymous
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 this relationship.

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,

Mordechai Torczyner

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