Humans experience the capacity of being called 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 our better selves – it is the voice of our own objective nature calling us toward fulfillment. We understand this urging of our own nature as the foundation of morality and religious practice.
Human fulfillment requires alignment with this “voice” calling out from nature, including our own human nature.
The insights for living a good life arise from a reasoned, teleological reflection on our own nature and our relationships to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct our moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
Deity or religious authority does not impose morality; rather it is an integral part of my natural identity. Right human behavior is predicated on empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule – treating others, as we would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. Religion is at its best when it reinforces this truth.
Human values and moral understanding have evolved throughout our history. Cultural convictions concerning slavery, patriarchy, marriage, warfare, and many other subjects have changed. Certainly, contemporary Jews do not hold the same moral opinions as did our ancient ancestors.
To note the evolving nature of human moral understanding is not to assert subjectivism or relativism. Our understanding of moral truth changes, not necessarily the truth itself. Most accept an ethical understanding that slavery was always morally wrong – we humans merely came to see that truth over time.
Jewish spirituality seeks to develop a people who are spiritually skilled at guiding themselves, others, and whole communities, into communion with the sacred, and therefore, each other. It is a spiritual-moral approach that seeks right relationships between self, nature, and others.
Spirituality & Truth
The Jewish vision is that it is fundamental to human nature to seek the truth about the world and ourselves, attempting to find meaning in our lives. Genuine Jewish spirituality is centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.
Truth is the adequate correspondence of human judgments to reality itself. Human knowledge is fallible, but generally reliable, and is verified in relation to reality. Reasoned human discourse functions along these lines – when people make claims, they ought to be able to provide some justification for those claims – justification involves offering evidence based in reality – this is how human communities gain wisdom and make progress.
The Jewish search for meaning is approached from the vantage point of spiritual realism. Spiritual realism operates from an epistemological conservatism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer some explanation for events and circumstances. Jewish history has provided ample experience of tragedy that tempers any inclination to lofty, unjustified saccharine theologies.
Therefore, the spiritually grounded person is the one who listens to and sees reality as it truly is – waking up to the world as it is in itself. (Texts, teachers, and traditions can help us in this task, but these are fingers pointing to the moon, not the moon itself, as a Buddhist saying goes.)
The notion of listening is employed metaphorically – the goal being to strip away the unnecessary filters that block more accurate perceptions of nature, including our own human nature. Awakening to the world as it really is and living accordingly is the heart of Jewish spiritual realism.
Jewish tradition understands that the purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion.
Awe & Patterns
We should stand in awe at the splendor of reality. And this awe, if carefully cultivated, reveals more than can be sustained by a mere mechanistic or materialistic vantage point that necessarily ascribes an accidental nature to everything that is.
Within the complex matrix of sufficient reason, causation, emergence, teleological thinking, and the nature of time – we begin to glimpse some sense of the multiple layers of contingency of the universe – contingency on some emergent cause that prompts the original expansion of singularity, the contingency on inherent principles that guide the ordered emergence of matter and energy, and the contingency on the regularity, continued existence, and direction of the unfolding.
Despite the protests of many, the universe appears to have an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from inert to consciousness – in a seemingly clear direction toward life and increasing complexity for the sake of survival. (Protests abound, in part, because science cannot properly detect or evaluate meaning, purpose, or value.)
Judaism is about meaning and purpose. And meaning is best articulated through myth, metaphor, poetry, art, and music. These should be taken seriously, but not be taken literally, for when they are the search for meaning devolves into imposing belief.
We may dismiss the above as poetry, but the proper response to some of life’s mysteries are reflection and meditation. Science solves problems. Religion plumbs the depth of mysteries. Wisdom is knowing the difference between a problem and a mystery. Mystery does not cry out for solutions or answers – it finds its resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage its depths.
Cultivating this sense of awe and reverence is the purpose of spirituality in general, and Judaism in particular. Such an enterprise is pivotal in undoing the unfortunate effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which our culture can be renewed.
The Spirituality of Open Table Judaism
1) The Sacred -Yahweh remains an elusive figure throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Jews have many ways of naming what is sacred and understanding what some call “the ground of our being.” Some believe in a personal God and some do not. Some believe in a sacred, life-giving, organizing force at work in the world and use Adonai (Lord) interchangeably with other names, such as Love, Mystery, Source, Spirit, The One, The Eternal, and so on.
2) The Sacred is Infused in Reality -as indicated in the opening lines of Genesis, each person (and each living thing) is a reflection of the Sacred, possessing “that of God” (or that of the Sacred) in their very being and therefore we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each human person.
3) Interconnectedness -emerging from one Sacred Source, evolving from the same earth/stuff as all other beings, Jews maintain the conviction that we are interconnected and interdependent on every other living being in the web of life, and as such, we have reciprocal duties and responsibilities to all living things.
4) Walking in Peace & Love – that love, generosity, and compassion are the proper responses to each human person (and each living thing).Therefore, Jews seek to conform their individual lives and the broader culture to affirm the dignity of all life, to promote social justice, care of the needy, and peace among all.
5) The Light Within – that each individual has a “light within” – whether it be called reason, wisdom, intuition, or the indwelling Presence of God – the direct and unmediated experience of that immanent and transcendent mystery and wonder, affirmed across almost all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit, moral development, and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
6) Engagement with Torah – Torah is the ongoing written and oral collective wisdom and instruction of the Jewish people. It contains the central myths that shape what it means to be a Jew – and a human being. All Jews are called to engagement with Torah.
7) Sacred Listening – as we become adept at deep listening – through meditation, Torah, and mindful living – we find infused through everything the sacred power of life and creativity – we encounter the sacred-ground expressing itself through prophetic wisdom that challenges us to conform our own lives to kindness and motivates us to confront powers, structures, and circumstances of evil and suffering with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
8) Natural Morality – deity, Torah, and religious authority do not impose morality; rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Right human behavior is predicated on human flourishing and empathetic reciprocity, conveyed in the core truth of love your neighbor as yourself – treating others, as we would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative known through human reason. Judaism, and all religion, is at its best when it reinforces this truth.
9) Attunement with Nature – holiness comes through cultivating awareness of our interconnectedness with the ecosystem and the rest of the human family. The path of life is this – we find our right place in the world by living lives of kenotic love for each other and the ecosystem and attuning to the cycles, patterns, and rhythms of nature. The Jewish Wheel of the Year offers a set of holidays rooted in our formative myths and the unfolding of the seasons. Engaging this cycle of holidays is a primary way of attuning and listening to nature and the world.
10) Personal Spiritual Autonomy – therefore each person should engage in a free and responsible pursuit of the truth, and their rights of conscience and religion, and a consensus based decision making process in our communities.