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What does it mean to lead a spiritual life?

Jewish Spirituality

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Jewish Spirituality

10 Ways to be a Spiritual Person


Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein
Senior Rabbi
Temple Israel
Memphis, Tennessee

The theme of my talk tonight is Jewish Spirituality. I'm going to give you my Top Ten list of what it means to be a spiritual person today, and also a glimpse of a wonderful new book by Rabbi Larry Kushner (a brother to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People) titled, Jewish Spirituality, A Brief Introduction for Christians. It's an illuminating, insightful text on Jewish spirituality. It is published by Jewish Lights Publishing, which has a very helpful Web site I would encourage you to check out: www.jewishlights.com.

Spirituality--whether you are Christian, Muslim, a Jew or a Hindu--is religion experienced intimately. You might say it's the core, the essence of religion. Spirituality is where you and God meet and what you do about it. It doesn't have to be, as Larry Kushner says, "other worldly," such as in Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." For most people, spirituality is ordinary and every day. It's a buzzword today. Earlier generations probably called the same idea sacred or holy. One of the great Jewish philosophers of all time, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is a great mystical theologian, suggested that spirituality is life lived in the continuous presence of the divine. I like Heschel's definition a lot.

The English word "spiritual" has its roots in Greek thought, and it implies a split between the material world and the realm of the spirit, because the opposite of spiritual is material. By definition, in English, spirituality seems to invite the spiritual seeker to exit this everyday, material world to attain some higher spiritual level. But tonight I am here to tell you that in classical Hebrew Jewish spirituality, there is only one world, that is simultaneously material and spiritual.

Many of you know Psalm 24:1, "The whole world is full of God. The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Everything is a manifestation of God--from prayers to garbage, and everything is connected. Everything conceals the Holy One of Being. When Jews recite Deuteronomy 6:4, "Here oh Israel, the Lord our God; the Lord is one," what we are saying is that everything is connected to God. Jewish spirituality is an approach to life in which we strive to become aware of God's presence and purpose in everything. It doesn't imply a removal from the everyday. In fact, it's in some ways finding the extraordinary in the ordinary--in your work, in your exercise, in your quiet times, in material things.

For a Christian, seeking an understanding of Jewish spirituality, the task is complicated, because Judaism and Christianity share a great deal. But because there are so many Christians and so many varieties of Christianity, it can be easy for Christians to fall into the habit of thinking that Judaism is just another, albeit an earlier, form of Christianity without Jesus. And this distorts Judaism's teachings and deprives Christians of what might be a unique and vital perspective of their own faith. Rabbi Larry Kushner says in his new book, that by studying another religion, whether it be Judaism if you are Christian, or Islam if you are Jewish, you can learn to see your own spiritual tradition through a new lens.

Jewish spirituality, as I said before, is a matter of seeing the holy in the everyday, and invites us to wake up and open our eyes to the holy things happening all around us every day. A lot of them are so obvious they are taken for granted unless, God forbid, you are struck with illness or have experienced misfortune. When we wake up and see the morning light, that's a spiritual moment according to Judaism. When we taste food and are nourished. When we learn from others and grow wise. When we embrace people we love and receive their love in return. When we help those around us and feel good. All these and more are there for us every day, but you have to open your eyes to see them. Otherwise, you miss it. Remember the famous phrase from Genesis when Jacob wakes up from his dream? "God was in this place, and I did not know it."

Another example of opening your eyes to see the holy in the everyday is the story of Moses and the burning bush found in Exodus. There is an open question of whether the burning bush was a miracle or whether it was a test to see if Moses would notice it or not. If you go to the Biblical gardens outside of Jerusalem, you'll see this bush that looks like it is burning when the sun shines on it. Maybe God spoke to Moses because Moses saw mystery in something as ordinary as this bush. Moses had to look at that bush long enough to see that. As you know, the bush was not consumed. Maybe once God saw that Moses could pay attention, God spoke to him.

Let me give you another famous example, Exodus 24:2. When God was ready to give Moses the Torah on Mt. Sinai, he said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and be there." Judaism is a tree of tradition. The Bible is just the beginning, with two thousand years of branches and leaves. One of those great branches was in Poland, which was pretty much wiped out by Hitler. One of the great Rabbis of Poland, the Kotzker Rebbe, said about this verse, "If God told Moses to come up on the mountain, then why did God also say be there? Where else could he be?" Well, the answer, according to the Kotzker Rebbe, is that not only did God want Moses to be up on the mountain, God wanted him also to be fully present. God wanted him to pay close attention. Otherwise, Moses would not really be there. I think you can relate to this idea where you are physically in one place, but because you are not paying attention, you might as well be somewhere else, and you may even be.

How do you open your eyes and pay attention in Judaism? Well, we do it by way of a b'racha, which I guess, you'd call a blessing. It's the best English translation. It begins the formula Baruch ata Adonai, "Holy One of blessing," Eloheinu melech ha'olam, "Your presence fills creation," and then you fill in the blanks. "Holy One of blessing, your presence fills creation, who shares your wisdom through great teachers." There is a blessing to be said when you learn from a teacher. There is a blessing to be said upon seeing a rainbow. There is a blessing to be said, as I said before, when you see the morning light. There is a blessing to be said for waking up in the morning, "Holy One of blessing, your presence fills creation, who removes sleep from my eyes in the morning and slumber from my eyelids." There is another one, "Holy One of blessing, your presence fills creation, who spreads over us the shelter of peace."

The word baruch--blessing--is different than the word for prayer. To pray, from the Latin, is to beg, to plead. The spiritual implies, in English, separation between the material and the spiritual. In Judaism we use the a b'racha, and it comes from the same word for your knees. The idea is when you bless God, it is not begging or pleading. It is an act of gratitude, bending the knee for God, symbolically. Whenever you recite, "Holy One of blessing, your presence fills creation," you are acknowledging an act of gratitude. Each time a Jew recites a blessing, they are basically saying, "Pay attention, something awesome is happening all around us." In this way you realize, again and again, that our everyday world is full of mysteries and wonder.

Where do we turn for our teaching? We turn to Torah which, narrowly translated, are the five books of Moses. But Torah refers really to The Way, just like the way to God would be through Christ in the New Testament in Christianity; the way to God would be through the Koran in Islam, which includes the Old and New Testaments. Torah is not just the Old Testament; it is the totality of Jewish teaching. You are not even allowed to read the scriptural verse in Judaism, unless you also have a Jewish commentary with it. You never read a verse in isolation. That's why you don't see Jews at football games holding up signs that say Genesis 24:6. (That's also interesting because some translations are really not translations, but it's what our Torah tradition says about that verse.)

We've never found a better way of finding out about God and coming close to God than by finding new meaning in the Torah and trying to understand its teaching. That's the way you become a better person. And the definition of a good Jew is someone who is always trying to be a better Jew. We sometimes argue about the meaning and the commentaries, but it is not fighting. When you argue about the deeper meaning of a verse or a spiritual saying, you are actually helping one another become a better Jew. (That's why in our greatest books--The Talmud, all the law codes and all the sacred writings--the minority opinion is always recorded with the majority opinion.)

Let me give you an example of how by arguing, we find the deeper meaning of a verse. What does it mean when the Torah says that God created the world in six days? Could it mean that there was a twenty-four hour day just as we have now--that there was a sun, one earth, and that God created it in twenty-four hours times six? Or does it teach that every week our world is created anew, and that on the seventh day, the Sabbath, we should stop creating just as God did? Obviously, it means the latter in our tradition. Again, as I said before, for Christians it is complicated because so much of one's understanding of Judaism is seen through the lens of Christianity. For instance, Torah is often mistakenly translated as "nomos" which means "the law." A more accurate translation of Torah would really be "teaching" or "way." Torah is the sacred story and Way of God of the Jewish people.

The main point I want to make tonight is that Jewish spirituality is practical. This may sound counter-intuitive, because usually when we think about spirituality, it's about being inside yourself--maybe removing yourself from the everyday material world and going to a spiritual, higher plane. But Judaism teaches that spirituality is practical. When you see something that is broken, fix it. That's spirituality. When you find something that is lost, return it. When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way you will be taking care of the world and fulfilling your role as God's partner. If spirituality is about a deeper connection with God and you are literally God's helping hand, then your job spiritually is to repair what needs to be repaired in this broken world.

Larry Kushner in Jewish Spirituality, A Brief Introduction for Christians, expresses the idea that if everyone in this world has a piece of one gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and we take our piece of the puzzle and make it fit wherever we can, then all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle would fit. Our world would be the way God meant it to be, and that's what the Garden of Eden is all about.

When I say spirituality is practical, what is the way? The way is really the way of mitzvah, usually translated "commandment" (mitzvot is the plural.) It is a commandment, but not in the legal sense. Legislation is something that is written on the law books, that's not what this is. This is more like a commandment that you feel is being addressed to you personally. You do misvot because you believe God calls on you personally to do them.

Let me give you the following metaphor from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who is retired in Chicago and a great teacher. He says, Being a Jew means you walk along a street that's studded with precious stones, and the goal is to gather as many stones as you can or a few of them that are beautiful. Each of those stones is a mitzvah, a divine commandment or sacred deed. This street is about three thousand years old, so there are a lot of precious gems in it. Some of the jewels are easily dislodged from the pavement, so you can easily put them into your life. But others will remain stuck in the pavement. Some are so obviously beautiful, you can understand them just by looking at them. Some of them are very obscure and hard to appreciate.

Let me put it in specific terms: honoring your parents, helping others. They're relatively easy to understand. Others--like not eating forbidden foods or gossiping-- are more difficult. We have 613 of these mitzvahs, give or take a few. When you do a mitzvah, you say a prayer. Some don't say it, but it's to be said. "Holy One of blessing, your presence fills creation, and you've made my life sacred by giving me the mitzvah of ______________." (Helping others. Honoring parents. Giving tzedekah--"charity".) By performing a deed that is counter-intuitive with the spiritual, by performing a material deed, it can bring you closer to God and change you. These Holy deeds are Judaism's way of realizing the holiness hidden everywhere, and a way of repairing creation. The world and everything in it is a manifestation of God's presence. The physical and the spiritual are all part of this one world. There is no Gnostic dualism.

Why do Christians bless the food before they eat? Did you ever think about that? Well, the reason is because there is sin in this world and everything is tainted with sin. When you bless the food, you are basically changing the sinful state of that food into a blessing. In Judaism, the classical teaching is that sin is a state of being, it's not something you do, so you don't have to bless the food. Everything in the world is good or has the potential for goodness. So, what you do is you say a b'racha thanking God for the food. You don't have to bless the food. You thank God for being the One who brings forth materials from the earth with which we can make bread.

Since everything is a manifestation of God's presence, the challenge and goal is to recognize that manifestation in such a way as to help other people find it, too. This is why there are no Jewish monasteries. We could use some monks, actually. I am a big believer in contemplation, and there is a whole art of Jewish meditation. Jewish meditation is a discipline, but only if it leads you to action.

And now it's time for my Top Ten list of what it means to be a spiritual person today:

Number One - to view the world as an ultimate mystery rather than as a mechanized machine. Either the world is an accident or it has a purpose. I think spirituality is a matter of your outlook on life, relationships, and the world itself. Whenever anybody tells me they are an atheist, I say two things: First, in Judaism, God actually created atheists for a very important reason. If you break your leg and someone who is a holy-roller comes by, they'll just pray over your leg. But if an atheist comes by, they'll fix your leg and make it better, so they are doing God's work without even realizing it.

The second thing I say to someone who is a devout atheist, is that I realize as a religious person and a believer in God that I have to account for evil. But your problem is you have to account for everything else. You have to explain whether your 58-year marriage is an accident; whether it is just all atom smashing; whether your love relationships or your life has really just been a matter of happenstance. The minute you begin to say that there is a mystery behind life--even if you can't explain it or understand it--I think you've entered the realm of the spiritual.

Number Two - which is closely related to number one, is to view life as meaningful rather than meaningless. It's not just a cliché. It's purposeful. If you believe that life is meaningful and purposeful, then you are saying that life can't be meaningless.

Number Three - to view life as a lesson in gratitude. That is where I come back to prayer in Judaism, which doesn't mean to beg or plead as it does in Latin. The root word for prayer comes from the root word for bending the knee, which is a sign of humility and gratitude before God. Prayer is not an easy way of getting what you want. Prayer is a difficult way of becoming what God wants you to be. I think the daily life of a spiritual person involves prayer of some kind. It does not have to be organized. It can be, but I think the daily life of a spiritual person involves prayer of some kind--From a Jewish viewpoint, it can also be the prayer of a single woman who wants to meet Mr. Right.

Before I met my wife, I dated this Jewish comedienne named Karen in Los Angeles. She used to do a routine on how her Jewish upbringing was a source of humor. This is how one of her routines went: One day Karen was walking along Venice Beach, and this older woman with a veil, dressed in black, came up to her and said, "Karen, you're in your late twenties. You haven't met the right guy. You're not going to meet the right guy. You are going to be miserable for the rest of your life." At which point Karen turned to the older woman and said, "Ma!"

But how would Karen's or any woman's prayer be answered if that was what she wanted--to meet Mr. Right? In Judaism her prayer would be answered if two things happened: Not if Mr. Right walks in, but if, after praying, she realizes that she is not alone, that God loves her; and, two, if she realizes that she is worthy regardless of what happens. It's counter-intuitive to the way the world uses the notion of prayer. The world would say your prayer is answered if you get what you want. But really, prayer is a way of becoming what God wants us to be, and that is aware of God; aware that we are not alone; and aware that we are worthy. This is why the whole prayer in school thing to me is ridiculous. So long as there are Physics courses, there will always be prayer in school. At least I felt that way. I know I took Physics for Poets, and I still had a tough time.

Number Four for what it means to be a spiritual person today is giving as a matter of obligation for what you owe, not as something that is nice to do. This is the difference between the charity you know, and tzedekah, which is the Jewish word for charity. Charity comes from caritas, which means "love." And it's something nice to do. Tzedekah comes from the same word for justice. You know that phrase in the Bible, "Justice, justice, shall you pursue"? That's the word, and it refers to what one ought to do whether you feel like it or not, whether it's nice or not.

This is why, even though Judaism gave the world the idea of tithing, Jews don't tithe. The Rabbis thought that any person who is aware of God and is alive and Jewish would realize that they get to keep 90 percent of what they earn, and that ten percent is something you owe. Well, they were a little naïve. I often hold up my Christian friends as exemplars of tzedekah, even though Christians use the word "charity." And some Jews give charity, even though they are supposed to give tzedekah. I'll give you one example.

Let's say down at St. Jude's Children's Hospital there is a girl who is dying. She needs a liver transplant that's going to cost $30,000. Two women from your congregation with the same net worth, the same income, walk in. The first one is absolutely hysterical. She can't concentrate. She can't sleep. Her heart just goes out to this girl. The more she hears about what the death of this child is going to do to the family, the more she cries. With tear-stained cheeks, she writes out a check for $15,000, and then she leaves. The second woman comes in and is very gruff. She really couldn't seem to care less about this little girl. The woman is distant and detached, but she writes a check for $30,000 and leaves.

Which woman is more meritorious? The one who felt in her heart for the sick little girl and wrote the check for $15,000, or the one who really seemed to be somewhat cold and wrote the check for $30,000? In Judaism it's a no-brainer. The second woman gave the more meritorious gift. Why? Because the first gift was charity, but the second one was tzedekah. The girl is going to die unless she gets a new liver, so how you feel about it doesn't really matter. It'd be nice if the heart followed the hand, but the hand doesn't always follow the heart. The bottom line, in terms of giving, is making a difference in this world. We need to work on the second woman and help her feel a little warmer, but she is going to save that kid's life. That's all that matters in terms of that situation. She understands what it takes to be God's partner. You also can't see feelings. You can't see motivations. All you can really judge are actions. And that's not to say that feelings don't matter, but they matter less than deeds in terms of outcome.

Number Five in my Top Ten list of what it means to be a spiritual person today is to realize that mind, body, and soul are all gifts of God. To live up to the highest image in which we were created means to cultivate these gifts to the best of our ability. Exercise. Diet. Seeing the body as sacred. In Judaism, again, the body and the mind and the soul are all inter-connected. You take care of the mind by always learning. The fact that you are here on a Monday night learning, and none of you have to be in school anymore, is an example of this--what grows never grows old. The soul is where we usually talk about spiritual life. The body and the mind are also part of it, though.

Number Six - to be a spiritual person today means to acknowledge life's mysteries, even the questions that have no answers. It means to entertain doubt. You can even cherish your doubts and acknowledge that within the limits of life there can be found great purpose and meaning even if the limits are somewhat arbitrary and unjust.

Remember that the name Israel itself means "one who wrestles with God." Jacob's name was changed to Israel after Jacob had the wrestling match. So it's okay to cry to God, yell at God, curse God, praise God. Acknowledge the mysteries of why things happen that we don't understand. You just can't ignore God.

Number seven - to be a spiritual person today means to trust in the goodness of life and all the potential this implies. I can prove that to you in Judaism by the way we toast. At life's greatest moments we don't toast by saying "cheers" or "bottoms up," which are fine toasts, we say l'chaim, which means "to life." So, to be a spiritual person means to trust in the goodness of life.

Number Eight - to be a spiritual person means to always hope and never succumb to despair. Although far from perfect, the world is a good world with many possibilities. When we are faced with a challenge, why not hope for the best? Why assume that you are going to receive anthrax in the mail tomorrow? Despite centuries of persecutions, we Jews are still here. Many civilizations have come and gone, but Judaism is alive and well. Despite problems and pressures for coping and succeeding--we may have questions, we may have doubts, but we never lost our hope.

There is a great religious expression you may have heard: "Where there is life, there is hope." Israel's national anthem means literally "the hope," Hatikvah. Here's a country that's only a little over fifty years old--besieged in the media, besieged in the world; six wars; there isn't an Israeli who hasn't had a father, uncle, brother, or relative killed in battle--wanting just to live in peace. Yet, they haven't given up their belief in the goodness of life. That's what's most remarkable.

Number nine - to be a spiritual person today is to strive for goodness, not things--to believe that honesty, integrity and dignity matter more than anything else. The goal of the spiritual person is to strive for goodness because ultimately, in Judaism, God is good. Yes, God is love. Yes, God is compassion. But God is good first. That's the highest image of God whose principal demand is ethical behavior. That's ethical monotheism. Judaism believes in one God whose principal demand is ethical behavior. That's the leap of faith we take.

It's not enough to believe in one God. Sadaam Hussein believes in one God. Every night when he signs off, he prays to Allah. Sure he believes it, but he also believes it's okay to kill members of his own family. There has to be an idea of a God who cares about the way we treat each other more than anything else--ethical monotheism.

When Cain kills Abel, the phrase is, "Hark, your brother's bloods," plural, not singular. Your English translations may say, "your brother's blood cries out from the earth." But the text literally says "your brother's bloods"--which means that it's not just Abel you've killed, but all future generations, all images of Me. Therefore we get back to the idea of hope, and that the good will prevail somehow, some way. The spiritual person strives for goodness no matter what.

There is a shortage in the world today of good people. It may say sound simple, that to be a spiritual person is to strive for goodness, but there are not enough good people in the world. I've often pointed out to high school and college parents that it's a lot easier to find a great doctor today than it is to find a great person. There are a lot of fine doctors, but try finding a person of integrity, honesty, goodness, and decency. When I used to visit my grandmother, may she rest in peace, I remember her friends used to show off pictures of their grandchildren. It's a big thing to take pride in your grandchildren--this is my granddaughter, the doctor; this is my grandson, the successful lawyer. None of them would say, "This is a picture of my grandson, one of the kindest and most decent people you'll ever meet."

Doing good is a much worthier and more satisfying goal than doing well. You have to be willing to give of yourself and some of what you have to others to achieve greatness and goodness. To achieve success, you either make money or you become well-known in your field. But to achieve goodness and greatness in order to make a difference in the lives of others and in the world, you have to be willing to give of yourself and some of what you have to others. That's part of the spiritual life, too.

Finally, Number ten. To be a spiritual person today entails the belief that every person carries with them the special signature of God. This may sound Japanese to you, but it's actually an old Jewish tradition. There once was a Rabbi who used to bow to everyone he met in the street. When he was asked to explain this conduct, the Rabbi replied, "Every time I see people, I am reminded that they are created in the image of God, so I have to bow to that part of the divine in every person." What a remarkable insight. People aren't white or black or rich or poor or male or female. They are all "sparks of the divine," if you think of it this way. Each has feelings and hopes and aspirations and fears, opinions and attitudes. Each person is a unique entity and always important. If you recognize this in your daily relationships it can be transforming. It even becomes possible to discipline lovingly, but also spiritually.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Abraham Twersky (who is also a psychologist, you can get his books), wrote that when his father wanted to reprimand him as he grew older, he didn't say, "What you did was bad." Instead, he would say, "What you did was not worthy of you." The beginning of the father's reprimand was an acknowledgement of his child's importance.

To believe in the sanctity of each human life created in the image of Life, will result in our judging people less harshly and treating our friends and even strangers more fairly. For Judaism, that is also a way to lead a spiritual life.

Copyright ©2000 Rabbi Micah Greenstein.

From a series presented by the Center for Spiritual Growth in Memphis, Tennessee.

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