It’s probably best to preface these remarks with a brief statement of how I came to Jewish Spirituality because that will help to explain why I agree that the four concepts presented in the book quite accurately depict the aspirational side of today’s Jewish community. We will only succeed if we meet those aspirations with appropriate programming.
I was raised in a tribally Jewish family with only the most passing acceptance of Jewish customs and no interest at all in law. I have my own long personal journey from youthful indiscretion to responsible adult. On the long road to Judaism what was key for me was learning mindfulness meditation and getting connected to The Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). It is in that context that the four principals hit close to my soul.
It is worth noting that my personal mindfulness practice made all the rest of this work possible so we ought to consider how paying attention is a pre-condition for any of this work being truly meaningful and long lasting. I see meditation and paying attention as a key practice that we need to teach to create the other pillars. The Institute sees Jewish spirituality in at least five dimensions: prayer, text study, embodied practice, meditation and Mussar. Already we can see the overlap. My sense is that this work is well aligned with three out of four of the themes outlined by Sid in Jewish Megatrends with a significant relationship to the fourth as well.
Chochmah: Wisdom of our sacred texts
For me the entry point was always text based but until I got involved with IJS it was mostly weekly Torah study. More recently it has been modern translations of the Chassidic masters. Art Green and Jonathan Slater to name just two have brought to the non-Hebrew reading world the wisdom of these great teachers.
Art writes beautifully about the vertical God that we grew up with and the horizontal God that we learn about from these texts. Everything is God. There is nothing beside God- Ein Od. In an odd way this is more consistent or at least not conflicting with much of the learning that my generation has derived from Eastern religions especially Buddhism. There is an opportunity here to broaden our reach. These are the teachings that I use in my weekly meditation group and these are the texts that we study with our Rabbi.
Tzedek: Social Justice
This is very important to my community but not a major focus of my personal practice. I was more politically active when I was younger.
However the work is reflected in compassion practices. A key Jewish spiritual practice is the blessings practice, which is quite similar to the Buddhist meta-meditation. The work is to develop feelings of compassion for others and to let those feelings guide actions. From a spiritual perspective the work is non-prescriptive. You need to figure out for yourself if you want to take action in the world and if so, what that action is.
This is what brought me to the NPSCI Consultation. We (myself and rabbi Chai Levy) have spent the first two years at the Center for Jewish Spirituality at Congregation Kol Shofar developing our programming. We now have weekly meditation and regular alternative Shabbat services and periodic Kabbalat Shabbat. We brought in “name” guest speakers and have long had a very popular Musical Meditation High Holidays. The goal for this year was to move folks from the idea that “I go to that” to the sense that “I belong to that”: to create a sense of community. I would say that we have been moderately successful so far. However if that is what our participants want, how do we get there? These are open questions for me.
Kedusha: Lives of Sacred Purpose-holiness transcendent meaning
I believe this to be true but also very difficult to discuss with others. Let’s face it, talking about belief in God, even in a synagogue, is tough so infusing our lives with transcendent meaning is even more of a challenge. On the other hand we can discuss and practice spiritual activities that support this, perhaps unstated, goal.
In addition to members of the congregation we are trying to reach out to the Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR) Jews of Marin County. We think that there are thousands of them sort of waiting to tap into that side of their lives. The numbers suggest that there are 30,000 Jews in Marin and the total of affiliated is perhaps 5,000. How many of the others identify as Jews: have spiritual yearning but no interest in traditional services? We don’t really know.
The way we try to tap into the desire to live a life of sacred purpose is to offer spiritual practices. We incorporate meditation, chant, and non-siddur based prayer in our offerings. Our participation is encouraging: 25 at weekly meditation, 40 at monthly Shabbat services and overflow crowds of 500+ at High Holiday Musical Meditation. We have a base upon which to grow.
Lawrence Yermack is on the Board of Directors as well as treasurer of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the co-founder, along with Rabbi Chai Levy, of the Center for Jewish Spirituality at Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon Ca. The Center is seeking to create an intentional spiritual community in Marin County California using the modalities pioneered by IJS.