Defining Spirituality

by | Nov 2, 2006 | 0 comments

I once spoke with a man who was stationed outside New Delhi in India, had changed his name to Swama Ganganti and was the head of the entire educational system of Hari Krishna. He came to see me wearing flowing orange robes and with clay on his head.

“Why? I asked him. “Did you look in your own backyard before traveling across the world and accepting the gods of others?

He told me that he did check Judaism out. When he first realized that there must be more to life than the daily routine, his father recommended he attend a lecture of a certain Rabbi. It was a week before the Passover holiday. He attended the lecture, or at least half, and quickly realized that it wasn't what he was looking for. The lecture was explaining the proper way to prepare your kitchen for Pesach. It spoke of aluminum foil and blow torches, it spoke of everything but G-d.

Irving went his way and felt he was too deeply involved to re-explore Judaism. He agreed to read some books I gave him on the condition that I read the Bava Bagita. At least he kept his part of the deal.

One of the great heroes of the Holocaust was Reb Kalman Klonymus Shapiro, the Piazetzner Rebbe. In the prime of his life as a Rebbe he was taken into the hell of the Warsaw Ghetto. He had a work load like everyone else, suffered from malnutrition, and was surrounded by disease and death. He decided in the ghetto he had a mission. He would give his last ounce to keep Jews strong in their faith. He was a holy man who gathered hundreds of people late every Friday night for a tish (a gathering of Chassidim). He would allow only the children to sit at the table while all the adults looked on with awe. It's hard to believe that the Piazetzner wrote three books while in the ghetto. We have them today, some even in English. They are a testimony to the divinity of the soul.

In one of those books he writes: The soul of a person loves to feel. It yearns not only for feelings of happiness but even for melancholy and tearful feelings. A person will listen to horror stories and watch violent horrifying scenes which actually bring him to tears, just so he will be able to feel. Emotion is the food of the soul; it is as much of a need of the soul as food is to the body. A person who fulfills this need with emotional prayer and study is nourishing the soul correctly. Prayer and study without emotion will leave a vacuum that will force the soul to search for emotion anywhere, even in sinful behavior. (Tzav V'Ziruz)

Today, we see less and less Orange people standing on corners and the joining of cults is no longer current events. For the most part, spiritual identification has become accepted by mainstream society. Even so, vast numbers of Jews still do not see Judaism as an option for filling the vacuum of the soul. For some reason, maybe longevity and routine, a fundamental aspect of Judaism is not being accessed.

Typically, spirituality refers to the otherworldly; the world of the spirit as opposed to the physical world. There is a fundamental dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual world. Cultures and societies tend to incorporate a balance of these opposing elements, but an interesting distinction emerges when comparing the great civilizations of the West and East.

Western civilization has developed into the masters of the physical. A focus on outcome instead of process, weekend instead of workday, leads to value system defined by success, comfort, and luxury. The Roman Empire was known for its voracious hunger for these things, while contemporary western society can not be that far behind. The culture of the flesh has left little room for the soul.

And then there is the East. Eastern Civilizations have spent centuries pondering the soul. They have so immersed themselves into 'soulism' that it is to the exclusion of the body and the entire physical world. We find that the East and the West are at times looking for each other as two lost twins. While American college graduates are meditating in the Himalayas, many from the East have become drunk with the physical pleasures offered by the west.

The culture of Judaism, especially as explained by the Mystics, is about the infusion of holiness into mundane reality. Our minds and our emotions are necessary for basic living, but they can also accomplish the loftiest spiritual heights. We don't look at Mitzvos as good deeds but rather as a permeation of the spiritual into the physical.

The task of imbuing mundane asks with spiritual meaning is not an easy one. This is why so many Jews find Jewish ritual so distant and opaque. But attaining spiritual greatness is not supposed to be easy. It is not a quick fix of physical pleasure, or even a sublime separation from the world. For anyone with a fire inside, the Torah is here for us to fuel the flames.

Does this Jewish definition of spirituality answer the man's problem about a Passover lecture about “aluminum foil and blow torches?

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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