Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn
The work of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction is most closely aligned with Proposition 4, that today’s Jews are seeking communities and experiences of kedusha, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose to their lives.
The Yedidya Center is dedicated to the development and support of the emerging practice of Jewish spiritual direction. Spiritual Direction, also known as Spiritual Companioning, allows people to explore and deepen their connection with God, the Holy, the Mystery, their higher purpose, or their inner soul—however they experience the sacred—and to explore how this connection might make a difference in their lives. It can be a powerful practice for people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” as well as for those actively engaged in religious life and communities. Spiritual direction supports the spiritual growth of Jews, sometimes past limiting concepts of God and Judaism, to nurture and deepen their connection to God, self, community and the world.
Spiritual companioning involves sitting together with one’s spiritual director about once a month to explore what is stirring in one’s life right now: what questions, what longings and desires, what spoken or unspoken prayers and concerns are moving in us? Sitting with questions like these, together with a shared openness to the presence of the holy, the spiritual director supports the other person’s access to his or her own soul’s stirring and deepest truth, to notice whatever invitations or openings might present themselves.
The practice of spiritual direction has a long history and the term refers to the kivun or direction a person senses being invited to incline toward, from within. What would it mean for each of us to bring our inner and outer life into deeper alignment with each other? To move closer to the “hidden wholeness” Parker Palmer suggests is the deepest yearning of every soul? For many, spiritual direction opens us to our heart’s desires for greater connection, love, service, and gratitude. That which is torn or broken in our lives and the wider world, also becomes clearer to us, and spiritual direction often opens for us new stirrings and clarity about potential paths we can take toward healing or tikun.
For most people, this tikun includes both “inner” and “outer” work—both tikun hanefesh, the healing of the soul, and tikun olam, the healing or repair of the world. One person might want to focus on a challenging relationship with her employer or colleague at work, another on a relationship with a parent or child, a partner or close friend. What might open up when we sit with our concerns, our fears and desires, in a contemplative or prayerful way? What different perspective might open up? What hidden possibilities might emerge?
For many, the question of what work in the world is calling to us, can be a ripe area for ongoing discernment in spiritual direction, or for particular focus at a particular time. How to discern just where and how our deepest longings meet the deepest needs of the world (or, as Frederick Buechner put it, “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”) is the kind of question for which spiritual direction offers a particularly fertile and safe space for exploration. The exploration one does in spiritual direction can therefore connect a person more deeply with justice/tzedek in a variety of different ways.
Until recently, Yedidya’s primary focus has been on its Morei Derekh Jewish Spiritual Direction Training Program, currently in its sixth cohort. However, we are now beginning to look more seriously at another foundational issue: While Jews who have been introduced to spiritual direction find it a powerful and transformative contemplative practice—so powerful that many choose to train to become Jewish spiritual directors themselves—most Jews have never heard of spiritual direction. For this reason, we are currently developing and experimenting with several different models to introduce Jewish spiritual direction to spiritual seekers, clergy, and activists.
In one model, we plan to engage rabbis and cantors in specific locations where there already are Jewish spiritual directors, introducing them to this practice in support of their continued spiritual growth, with a secondary goal of connecting the clergy and local Jewish spiritual directors who can then help bring spiritual direction to the awareness of people in these communities more broadly.
We have started offering panel presentations and spiritual direction sessions at Limmud conferences and these have been well received. And, we are exploring avenues to introduce Jewish spiritual direction through a redesigned seeker-friendly website, and YouTube videos. Reaching out to unaffiliated Jewish seekers, especially younger Jews, remains our greatest challenge.
Community/kehilla: Yedidya is increasingly focused on the potential value for Jews in group spiritual direction, an alternative form of the practice, in which one is a member of a group of generally 5-7 people meeting together regularly with a trained spiritual director.
For Jewish spiritual seekers, discovering and connecting with other Jewish seekers is often very powerful in itself. Especially for Jews who have felt somewhat alone in their spiritual journey, meeting regularly with a small group of people who share this orientation can be very affirming of the value of this path, and can help each person feel a deeper connection to something bigger than themselves, in connecting with each other, as well as with God/the Holy/the Mystery.
Wisdom/chochma also plays an important role in spiritual direction and Yedidya’s work. Spiritual direction helps Jews access the wisdom of our tradition in ways that are personal and profound. Seeing one’s own experience mirrored or framed by a particular moment in a biblical narrative and discovering insight or inspiration in an image or phrase from a Jewish text or liturgy brought in by the spiritual director, can be a deeply powerful experience. This is one of the special gifts of Jewish spiritual direction.
Jewish spiritual direction offers Jews a powerful practice to explore, deepen and live more fully in response to their sense of kedusha, the spiritual dimension of their lives. We hope, in the years ahead, to enable many more Jews to learn about and experience spiritual direction themselves, with all the gifts the practice offers.
Ruth H Sohn is a rabbi, teacher, spiritual director, and writer. She co-directs the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction and the Morei Derekh Jewish Spiritual Direction Training Program, and also serves as Director of the Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles.