Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ordinary spirituality


When we talk about spirituality, we often seem to mean what psychologists call “peak experiences.”


You know: the kind of experience that leaves you overcome with awe and wonder.
“Peak” in this sense doesn’t really refer to mountaintops, but common descriptions of peak experiences often seem to involve mountains. For example, reciting the morning prayer Modeh ani at the top of a mountain precisely at dawn.

That could be deeply moving. Or it might not be—that’s unpredictable. In any case, it requires getting oneself up to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise.

Such experiences are necessarily rare, and we can’t count on producing one on demand. So I’d like to talk here about ordinary spirituality, the experiences that available without extreme effort. 

Let’s start with one that’s available every Friday evening. When we sing “L’cha Dodi” early in the service, we turn toward the entrance  for the last verse in order to welcome Shabbat, which is seen metaphorically as a bride arriving to wed the entire Jewish people.

Instead of turning back toward the front immediately at the end of the verse, try visualizing a bride proceeding slowly down the aisle while the chorus is sung. Turn slowly as she walks along and see if it enhances your experience of Shabbat.

Or try to abstain from gossip whenever the opportunity arises. (This is harder than it sounds.) Remember as you do so that gossip is worse than just “not very nice”: it’s lashon hara, evil speech, which is prohibited by the Torah.  

You might try choosing food consciously. Maybe you’re not interested in keeping kosher, but would “Biblical kashrut” make sense for you? That means avoiding just pork,  shellfish, and intentional combinations of meat and milk.

Or perhaps “eco-kashrut” has some appeal: choosing locally grown food when you can, looking for natural products, or increasing the plant-based portion of your diet.

What about visiting a sick person? This is an important mitzvah for all Jews, not just rabbis. In particular, find out whether someone recently home from the hospital needs help with shopping or getting to follow-up medical appointments. (If you could consider doing this on request, even for someone you might not yet know, please tell us.)

Most important: when you do any of these things, remember that it’s not just nice, or good for your health. It’s a Jewish action, a mitzvah.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, is quoted as saying, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” Temple is of historical interest for another reason: in 1942, he and Rabbi J.H. Hertz founded the British Council of Christians and Jews, and throughout World War II he exhorted the Allies to intervene against the slaughter of Jews in Europe. 

It must have been a radical step for the chief cleric of the Church of England to say that God might not be very concerned with religion. After all, he was in the religion business, so to speak.

It is, however, a very Jewish idea. Our tradition holds that how well, or how much, you pray is of much less importance than how you live.