Monday, March 11, 2013

What's Wrong with Jewish Spirituality

Here’s the problem with contemporary Reform Jewish spirituality: it isn’t Jewish.
I’m reading the “President’s Report from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion” (HUC–JIR), the rabbinical seminary of Reform Judaism from which I graduated in 1981. In the section entitled “Spirituality Initiatives” there is a photograph of a group of people, Jews I presume, practicing yoga on the floor of a synagogue sanctuary in front of the Ark. As I read the short essay, I discover two other practices that seem to be part of our Jewish spirituality initiative: mindfulness training and spiritual direction.
Now I have nothing against yoga, mindfulness practice, or spiritual direction; in fact I’m an advocate of all three. And if you can get more Jews to lie down on the floor of the sanctuary than to bob up and down in the pews, go for it. But let’s be honest: yoga, mindfulness, and spiritual direction are not Jewish practices. While it is possible to strip these practices of their religious roots and trappings (Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian, respectively), it does a disservice to them when we do so, and suggests that when it comes to spiritual practice Judaism has nothing to offer.
Why is there no “Spirituality Initiative” teaching the contemplative practices of Abraham Abulafia, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and Reb Nachman of Breslav? Why are we practicing spiritual direction rather than yechidut, mindfulness rather than hitbonenut and hitbodedut, and yoga rather than the walking (pacing) practice of Musar?* The answer, I suspect, is that there's no place for spiritually hungry liberal Jews to go to learn these practices, and to become teachers of them so they can bring them back to our Jewish communities the way Jewish students of yoga do with yoga.
How sad that monies are going to fund secularized versions of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian practices rather than to fund Reform versions of Jewish practices. How ironic that as more and more Reform Jews ask for spiritual practices they are offered practices from religions other than their own. If this is the future of “Jewish” spirituality, there is no future at all.

* If you are Jewish and have no idea what yechidut, hitbonenut, hitbodedut, and Musar are, you're simply making my point: Jews are being robbed of their contemplative heritage because our leaders and funders are either ignorant of them, or have consciously and deliberately abandoned Jewish spiritual practice for culturally denuded versions of the spiritual practices of others.


Erick Reynolds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rabbijillz said...

Hi Rami. With all due respect (and you know how much I deeply respect you and have learned from you)- the HUC project is taught by rabbis from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. SInce I am a graduate of the IJS rabbinic program I can tell you that we do indeed practice hitbodedut, mussar, hitbonenut -- AND yoga and mindfulness meditation that is inspired by Hasidic, Zoharic, talmudic and torah texts! One thing I have loved is the beautiful blending of rooted and authentic Jewish practice with ideas from other cultures (like we have always done everywhere we have lived.)

SteveL said...

Rabbi . . . What is the essence of these older Jewish spiritual practices? What are the unique qualities that are not also expressed in "borrowed" practices? What is the importance of labels, of identifying practices with particular traditions?

Changeless Chariot said...

Oh Rascally Interspiritual Provocateur...!! Bravo Reform Movement! Tear down the walls! Speak all of the spiritual languages! See through the external concepts! Loosen attachments to only what is familiar! Value intention and diligence and true growth above method! Create a shul that is open beyond The Tribe! And do not rest until your Jewish congregants are interrupting their routines five times daily to heed the call to pray on their prayer rugs!!!

The Right to Write said...

Great post. I would add that the Sufi related practices of Abraham Maimonides should be read by Jews interested in expanding the base of their practices in a Jewish context

Rabbi Rami said...

I have nothing against any of these practices, but it is odd that HUC didn't mention any of the Jewish ones.

And while I have little use for labels in my personal life, you would think that an institution devoted to its label would tout its own brand's products. And if we are really living in a post-brand world, why is it that Hindus and Buddhists aren't doing Jewish spiritual practices? In fact why is it we still have Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews?

And, yes, lets not forget Rabbi Sheikh Abraham Maimonides.

Changeless Chariot said...

"And if we are really living in a post-brand world, why is it that Hindus and Buddhists aren't doing Jewish spiritual practices?"

As you know, the Dalai Lama consulted with Jewish leaders about surviving in diaspora and was apparently moved by the many home-based practices in Judaism to remember and maintain connection. It would not be too surprising if one day there is a Tibetan Buddhist version of a Pesach Seder or Shabbat Dinner. This would be an obvious example -- but the traditions have been interacting for millennia and already have overlapping practices and perspectives built in.

"In fact why is it we still have Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews?"

Evolution is sloooooooooooooow.

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