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What is Jewish Spirituality?

What matters in Jewish spiritual practice is less the experience itself than what we do with it.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault defined spirituality as “the search, the practice, the experience by which the subject operates on himself the transformations which are necessary to access the truth.”

What I love about this definition is that it accommodates a very wide range of spiritual orientations, Jewish and otherwise, while maintaining some core features of the phenomenon.

To name a few: Spirituality is subjective, insofar as spiritual experiences are largely internal and thus different for everyone. It is focused on practice and experience — rather than, say, text, dogma, or law (though all three can also be a site of spirituality). You can no more understand spirituality by reading about it than you can taste a recipe by reading a cookbook.

And that means spirituality is pragmatic. Unlike the beliefs and behavioral requirements of religion, the validity of a spiritual practice is a function of its utility. Spirituality asks not whether an action is commanded, or connected to one’s family, or part of an objective moral order. It asks: What does it do? And does it work?

Finally, when taken seriously, spirituality (again, Jewish or otherwise) focuses not on narcissistic moments of feeling good, but on transformation and truth. The best way to check the validity of a spiritual experience is to see what’s changed afterward. Am I kinder? Am I more aware of wonder? Am I more open to empathy?

If there’s one asterisk I’d place next to Foucault’s definition (other than the 1980s-era gendered pronoun), it’s to note that Jewish spiritual practice, in particular, can often be social, communal, relational. From congregational prayer to marching for social justice (“praying with my feet” as Abraham Joshua Heschel once called it) to rectifying one’s ethical conduct (in the Jewish practice of Mussar, for example), both the context and the “truth” of Jewish spirituality are often relational in nature.

Of course, given the subjectivity inherent in spiritual practice, what that “truth” is varies from person to person. This doesn’t entail relativism, certainly not in terms of ethical conduct. Only that the contextual frame, content, and meaning of spiritual experience will vary from person to person.

For example, many people define the truth of spiritual practice in theistic terms. Someone might say they feel close to God when they light Shabbat candles, or meditate, or hear the blowing of the shofar.

For others, the truth may be non-theistic, at least as conventionally understood. For this sort of practitioner, Shabbat candles may arouse feelings of compassion or wonder, meditation a sense of gratitude, and the shofar a sense of connectivity to the primal rituals of the Jewish people. “God” may not be part of the experience.

Having worked in the field of spirituality for about 20 years, my sense is that, in fact, these different practitioners are reporting similar things. Their worldviews may shape the character of the experiences, and they definitely shape their interpretations. But one of the fascinating paradoxes of spirituality is that while it’s intrinsically subjective, so much is held in common.

What then makes Jewish spirituality Jewish spirituality? Here are three answers.

First, and most obviously, it utilizes Jewish tools and topics for spiritual practice. One could have a lovely spiritual experience lighting candles on Thursday night, but lighting them on Friday night grounds the experience in Jewish folkways, Jewish community, and the Jewish calendar. For me personally, that deepens the experience. My grandmother did this, probably her grandmother too, and so do many of my friends and fellow community members. We may have different ideas about what we’re doing, but there is a sweet bond in this shared ground of practice.

(Of course, for some people, that same bond may feel like baggage. Someone oppressed by their traditional upbringing and its rigid restrictions may find more joy and connection without that “bond.”)

Second, Jewish spirituality has some distinctive characteristics. Unlike some popular forms of meditation, for example, it tends to affirm and incorporate a wide range of emotional experience. The Buddha sits in equanimity; the Hasid dances with the ups and downs of life. And unlike monastic asceticism, which has only rarely occurred in Jewish communities, most Jewish spirituality embraces the sensual world of eating, dancing, having sex, and so on.

For traditionalists, that embrace may still be constrained by law. But even in such cases, one rarely (though not never) finds in Jewish contexts a total sublimation of the material into the spiritual. Embodiment remains in all but the most abstruse of Jewish mystical practices, as does the embrace of joy, sadness, ecstasy, thinking, feeling – the entire range of human psychological and somatic experience.

Finally, Jewish spirituality is inevitably tied to ethics and social life. Even when, as noted earlier, the spiritual experience is personal, what comes afterward is social. Judaism is a householder religion, tied to family, community, and society.

It’s notable that perhaps the paradigmatic mystical experience in the Bible, Moses ascending Mount Sinai and communicating directly with God, is barely narrated in the text. We get almost nothing of Moses’s spiritual experience. What we get are the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow – the fruits of the spiritual experience, not the experience itself.

This “coming down the mountain” is a critical metaphor, and it reappears in different forms in the mystical experiences of Ezekiel, Elijah, Isaiah, and others. Mystics have their experiences, but what matters is what they learn from them, whether it’s law or prophecy or ethical warnings to Israel.

Ultimately, Jewish spirituality comes down from the mountaintop, back from the experience of the sublime. As Heschel described so eloquently, that is where Judaism begins.

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