Spirituality & Practice – Jewish Theology, Pt. V

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Many Christians’ first (and sometimes only) encounter with Judaism is through the Gospels and Christian theology. However, the Gospels largely present a form of Judaism that largely no longer exists.

Additionally, the Gospels present the Pharisees as Jesus’ Jewish foil, and therefore, many of the descriptions and stories have a somewhat polemical purpose. Much of Jesus’ ministry focused on a genuine spirituality that transcended legalism and ritual purity concerns – and often the legalism of the Pharisees was exaggerated as a literary device.

Modern Liberal Jewish Practice

Judaism properly understood is a path of love, not the blind and cold obeyence of law. Reform Judaism, in particular, deemphasizes religious purity and legalism and focuses instead on self-improvement, the opening of heart, love and compassion, mercy, serving others, and working toward a society of peace and justice.

The Reform approach urges that one selectively engage those ceremonies and practices from Jewish tradition and custom that elevate his or her life. No spiritual practice fulfills its meaning unless it make one a better, more loving person and adds meaning to one’s life.

The Reform approach is to root oneself in authentic tradition, while responding to a world in need of hope by raising our moral sights and practice instead of accepting ethical chaos or immoral behavior. Reform Judaism urges one to do what is just and right, based on our ancient teachings interpreted through modern insights.

A Personal Spirituality

Each individual must decide for himself or herself what constitutes a meaningful spiritual path – no one can force meaning onto another person. Part of one’s task in life is to wrestle with profound questions and formulate answers that satisfy. Therefore, there is a legitimate and indispensable aspect of subjectivity and individuality to any theology and spiritual path. For Jewish spirituality to be mature, it must be fully integrated into subjectivity. As such, there is ample room within Judaism for diversity of thought, variance in practice, and personal expression.

Common Practices

Humans experience the capacity of being called/commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to God. We understand this command of our own nature as the foundation of mitzvot. The following are some examples of the components of a modern Jewish spiritual practice.

Mindfulness (Zehirut) – cultivating an awareness of presence, a focus on the present moment and living it to the fullest. In practicing mindfulness, we may find we also cultivate awe and gratitude.

Prayer (TeFillah) – we find value in expressing our highest intentions in sacred language, in silence, and focusing on them in private and communal situations. Prayer is the language of the heart sanctified. There is power in focused human intention, even if that power is simply inner transformation.

Sabbath (Shabbat) – we honor and observe the Sabbath. We understand the value of rest and renewal. We grasp the importance of slowing down and spending time with loved ones. We value the sacred rhythm that Shabbat brings to our lives.

Loving Kindness (Hesed)- the ancient rabbis taught that the perfect sacrifice is acts of loving kindness. We therefore understand that our Covenant commitment to the Source of Goodness and Life is most profoundly expressed in acts of love and kindness.

Study (Chinukh) – Judaism places a strong emphasis on education, and in particular, the study of Jewish texts, practices, philosophy, ethics, and tradition.

Turning (Teshuvah) – self-examination and reflection on our lives is vital if we desire to grow in kindness and holiness. Much of our spirituality is an exercise in orientation – our task is to continually turn back to the Source of Goodness and the path of life.

Restoration (Tikkun) – Jews are called to heal the world. Our fundamental attitude should be one of restoring the world to the divine vision of wholeness, interconnectedness, and harmony – establishing right relationships between people and between people and nature.

Peace (Shalom) -striving toward wholeness broadly understood – a thriving of of the entire person – body and soul – and harmony among all.

Justice (Tzedakah) – maintaining proper relationships by giving to others their due and respecting fundamental human rights. Tzedakah also includes what Christians refer to as charity –  the care of the needy, the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.

Kosher (Kashrut) -The original intent of the dietary laws were likely to reinforce an emerging cultural identity. Today, Jewish dietary practices are, for many, an exercise in self mastery and a daily reminder of the need for kindness, the humane treatment of animals, and increased awareness of food and the ethical issues involved in its production. The traditional prohibitions involving pork, shellfish, and the humane slaughter of animals is often now blended with concerns over organic farming, fair trade sources, and health effects.

Sustainability (Mekayem) – Torah contains multiple commandments to respect the environment and nature. Jewish spirituality involves a commitment to live lightly on the earth, protecting the environment and conserving natural resources.

Simplicity (Histapkut b’me’ut) – to focus on what is truly important and not allow lesser concerns from detracting from life’s primary values and goods. Simplicity is recognizing what is vital and what is extraneous.

Celebration & Cycles (Simcha) the central myths, values, and teachings of Judaism are reinforced through the celebration of the Jewish holidays. Following the rhythm of the Jewish holidays through the seasons offers a way of attuning to both the mythic narrative and the cycles and rhythms of the natural world, thereby helping us deepen our Judaism while recognizing the interconnectedness of reality and our place in the world.

About Gregory Eran Gronbacher