Shabbat Cultural Program: Rational Spirituality

By Ernie Rubinstein.

For a copy of the handout, click here

I have participated in TCC Shabbat programs before, but always as part of a panel. This is the first time I am standing up here by myself. My concern over this is that, on my own, I may put some of us to sleep. But not to worry. According to some traditions, sleep is itself an entrée to a deeper spiritual life. So if you find yourself nodding off, don’t hesitate to follow that lead. We’ll be sure to wake you up for the snacks upstairs.

I want to acknowledge straight off that this topic of spirituality is not a comfortable one for many of us. The liturgy committee knew this when those of us on it revised the older High Holiday liturgy. If you look in the former High Holiday service book, you’ll find a section headed with the phrase, “Secular Spirituality.” That section is mostly a tribute to the awesomeness of nature. In our current High Holiday service book, which we used the first time this past fall, you’ll find those same words celebrating nature that occur in that section, but headed with a different title: Awe and Wonder. Those of us on the committee knew that many of us dislike the very word, spirituality. We did not want to burden participants in the liturgy with alienating or burdensome phrases. So we just took it out.

There are many good reasons not to talk about spirituality. Let me count the ways: there is a philosophical reason, a Jewish reason, and a humanist reason.

For the philosophical reason, I invoke the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. Many of us remember Descartes for his famous claim: I think therefore I am. It is perhaps the most parodied phrase in the history of philosophy. But Descartes said other things too. A key thing he exhorted us to do was to have “clear and distinct” ideas. A clear idea pointed to something self-evidently true. A distinct idea was differentiable from all other ideas. But spirituality is neither of these. It is neither clear nor distinct. So hadn’t we better just leave it alone?

There are many reasons for Jews to be uncomfortable with this word. I’ll cite just one. In its French form, spirituality has a very rich history in the Catholic Church. It’s easy to translate spirituality into French. It just becomes: spiritualité. There is a 17 volume Dictionnaire de spiritualité published under the auspices of the Jesuit order. It discusses different aspects of the experience of living a devotional life within the Catholic Church. Insofar as Catholics have claimed this word, at least in French, it might become a difficult word for Protestants to use, but also for Jews. Another reason to leave it alone.

Finally the humanist reason to avoid this word: it is just too close to religion, a word that in our setting carries a negative freight.

And yet, despite all the reasons to avoid this word, it seems to be everywhere. It is quite promiscuous in its couplings with other words and ideas. For instance, it now enjoys a relationship to Judaism. Here I hold in my hand a book titled, Safed Spirituality, which is about a group of 16th century Jewish mystics who inhabited the town of Safed, or Tzfat, in what is now northern Israel. And here I have still another book, entitled Spirituality and the Secular Quest, which discusses the many secular contexts in which the word spirituality now occurs. Let me just read from the table of contents, for some of these contexts: holistic health, psychotherapy, Twelve Step programs, feminism, gay identity, social justice, science, ecology, art, sports, and games.

But the word comes much closer to home for us Jewish humanists. It occurs in the dictionary of terms I received from the national offices of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, when I joined TCC. Within this dictionary, Guide to Humanistic Judaism, there is an ample entry on Spirituality. In addition, thanks to good advice I had from TCC member Peter Mones, I was able to acquire from those same national offices of SHJ a copy of papers presented at a 2001 conference that SHJ sponsored on spirituality. Entitled Secular Spirituality: Passionate Journey to a Rational Judaism, this book includes a piece by Sherwin Wine, and also by Yaakov Malkin, whom Rabbi Tzemah has told us about. The topics of the essays range from Albert Einstein, and whether he models a secular spirituality, to the Jewish mystics, and what they might have to say to Jewish humanists.

But then, too, our own Shabbat liturgy book includes a short section of reflections on spirituality.

So the term is really not foreign to us. And I think there could be good reason to think a bit about what it might mean for us. I’m remembering back on the first Bintel Brief program that Peter planned for us. I remember three questions that three of us within the congregation anonymously posed: one about Passover, one about the challenge of responding to all the pressing social issues of our day, and one about serenity. Someone wondered: where is the serenity in Humanistic Judaism?, or, perhaps, in Judaism generally? I think this word, spirituality, may unfold from its depths an answer to that question.

So let me say how I propose to proceed from here. I want to sketch out first what I think of as the emotional component of a spiritual experience. And then I want to identify what I think of as the rational component of a spiritual experience. Putting the two together, we wind up with an account of rational spirituality, or rational spiritual experience. To conclude, I’ll want to commend to us a person within the history of Jewish philosophy who I think of as a paradigm of rational spirituality: Moses Maimonides.

I want to begin with reference to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which happened in Michigan last April. Some of us here attended. Part of the celebration was a Town Hall that included this interesting exercise: participants were to identify in six words or less what made them passionate about Humanistic Judaism. The event was recorded and is now mounted online, where I watched it. Two of our members shared their six words: Susan and Devera. Susan said, “Authentic Judaism without having to compromise.” And Devera said, “A Jewish life without supernatural authority.” Susan and Devera have given us the parameters within which a Jewish Humanist spirituality must work. And I hope to stay within these wisely set bounds.

Now remember that we’re dealing with a word that, with apologies to Rene Descartes, is both unclear and indistinct. Let’s try to give it some definition. One way to do that is explore its etymology. The adjective, “spiritual” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn derives from the Latin verb, spirare, meaning to breathe. Hebrew parallels this etymology. The word ruach also links our ideas of wind, air, and breath to spirit. And modern Hebrew ruchani means spiritual. I sometimes find a concept that feels “unJewish” acquires some Jewish resonance when I see it expressed in Hebrew!

But the point of this etymological link between spirit and breath is to suggest that spirituality at its base is as basic to us as breathing. It is not a pie-in-the-sky concept. It is actually visceral in its connotations, where the visceral is something “felt in, or as if in, the internal organs of the body; instinctive or beyond reason,” as one dictionary puts it. I take this to be one part of the emotional component of a spiritual experience.

At that same Town Hall, at the 50th anniversary celebration of the SHJ I cited a few moments ago, the executive director of the SHJ, Paul Golin, also spoke. Paul was the MC of the Town Hall. As I listened to the online recording of his remarks, I was surprised to hear him raise the topic of secular spirituality. There’s a context for this. Paul has expressed the belief, in several venues, that the membership model of belonging to a congregation has had its time. At least within the liberal branches of Judaism and Christianity, congregations on the whole are losing members. Paul commends another model for belonging to a religious or cultural community—that of mission. He writes about this in the Spring 2019 issue of the magazine Humanistic Judaism. Instead of signing up people as members, we should invite them to participate in advancing a mission. And a mission for Humanistic Judaism could be secular spirituality.

At the Town Hall, Paul explained what he meant by a spiritual experience. He meant, as he put it, “chemical reactions in my brain” that happen when “I see beautiful art or hear beautiful music or I am at the beach watching the sunset;” these are “good chemical reactions that I seek out.” Paul makes a couple of key points here. The first is that a spiritual experience for him is indeed visceral. The organ of his body that registers it is his brain. We can imagine the neurons firing and flashing up a special storm over the course of a spiritual experience.

The second point is that spiritual experiences occur for him, perhaps most regularly, in the context of nature or of the arts. It is striking how often within discussions of secular spirituality nature and art, together as a kind of team, figure so prominently. It’s not hard to find examples. The artist Wassily Kandinsky wrote an essay entitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art. A Christian pastor and scholar named Belden Lane wrote a book with the dramatic title, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. And within the SHJ publication, Secular Spirituality I mentioned a few moments ago, Jewish Humanistic rabbi Daniel Friedman wrote about “Art and Nature: Beauty and Spirituality.”

Closer to home, our own liturgy book for the High Holidays makes the same point. Under the heading, Awe and Wonder (formerly: Secular Spirituality), the liturgy asks us to contemplate “distant stars, … mile-deep canyons…and the sunset’s glory.” And it adds, “we draw imagination and creativity from nature’s beauty.” That reference to imagination and creativity connotes, for me, the world of the arts. The passage suggests to me that nature inspires us to create much of the art we make, and that somewhere in that mix of nature and art, spirituality occurs.

I suppose that all of us can report on experiences of nature or art that moved us in a visceral way. For me, this often happens at the beach. There at the beach, what we sometimes think of as the four primal elements of nature—earth, water, fire, and air—all meet most dramatically. We put ourselves at the forceful intersection of all four. And if we’re half-naked as we lie or sit there on the sand, or even all naked, the impact of the elements on our visceral being is all the greater. Or an experience of nature could be lighter and more ethereal, but just as awesome, as when we witness a rainbow at the end of a storm. In Chicago, where I used to live, brilliant rainbows would fill the sky, seeming to spread over the whole of Lake Michigan. Sometimes an experience like that of nature bonds with a kindred experience of art. For my part, I can’t see a rainbow without feeling myself transported by the memory of Judy Garland singing about that magical place just “over the rainbow, way up high.”

So here are two parts of the emotional component of a spiritual experience: it should affect us viscerally, and in a way analogous to the way we are affected when we are deeply moved towards wonder and awe by nature or art. But a caveat: nature and art do not define spirituality. They supply just two contexts for a spiritual experience. They are not the only contexts. And an experience of nature or art might not qualify as spiritual. We might be bored by a work of art or damaged by an excess of nature. Nature and art function spiritually for us when they hold us suspended in a visceral experience of awe and wonder. But that experience might come to us in other ways, too.

There’s one last part of the emotional component of a spiritual experience I want to mention. It should leave us feeling better for having had it. Paul Golin makes this point about Shabbat services when they function in a spiritual way. He writes, in the spring 2019 issue of Humanistic Judaism, that in that case they “help people feel better afterwards than they did before they arrived.” If all spiritual experiences do that, we should value them indeed.

So much for the emotional component of a spiritual experience: it should move us viscerally in ways analogous to our deepest experiences of nature and art, and leave us feeling better afterwards than we did before. And now onto the rational component.

Having invoked the wonders of nature to describe the emotional part of a spiritual experience, let me now summon art for access to the rational part of that experience. We have many artists here in our midst: poets, painters, musicians, knitters, embroiderers, jewelry-makers, among others. I thought at first an abstract painting might serve our purpose in this quest, and that we could all imagine ourselves regarding one at MOMA, for example, trying to understand it. It’s just that wish to understand abstract art that engages our reason as we think about it. But I think I prefer to take my example from the world of the culinary arts. In particular, I have in mind brownies, some of which await us upstairs, and provide all the more reason to finish up quickly here.

Let us consider the brownie and the pleasure we have in eating one. We can imagine the homey and inviting aroma, the richness of the chocolate, the flakiness of the crust, the fluffiness or fudginess of the center, the texture on the tongue. I submit that there are two distinct ways our reason could be engaged by this experience. On the one hand, we might want to know the recipe. In that case, we are understanding the brownie as the effect of a series of causes involving flour, chocolate, eggs, batter and baking. We might want to try the recipe at home. But on the other hand, we might have little or no interest in that. A true brownie connoisseur might instead simply savor how the various parts of the sensual experience–appearance, aroma, touch, taste–cohere into a whole or total experience of brownie-pleasure. It’s our reason, I submit, that pulls that diversity of sensual experience into a self-cohesive whole. In this case, our reason operates by registering the whole that rises up from several parts of our sensual experience.

I want to suggest that these two ways of appreciating a brownie represent two different ways that our reason can, in general, operate. We can exercise our reason to uncover causes of effects; or we can exercise our reason to discern wholes that arise from parts. We might say that reason in the first sense works analytically; and that reason in the second sense works synthetically.

Now let’s invite spirituality back into the discussion. This promiscuous word now has before it two different ways it can ally with reason. It can ally with reason functioning analytically, or with reason functionally synthetically. I submit that if we survey occurrences of spirituality in the neighborhood of reason, it more typically allies with reason working synthetically. Spirituality favors the notion of wholes arising from parts over the notion of effects arising from causes. It is intrigued by the part-whole model of understanding the reality around us. There are many examples. Here I cite just two from my small library of spirituality readings. “Spirituality … results from experiencing a deeply felt sense of connection with something bigger and grander, of which … the self is an inextricable part.” Those are the words of Ethical Culture leader Joseph Chuman, from an essay of his in the SHJ volume, Secular Spirituality: Passionate Journey to a Rational Judaism. Now join that claim to this one, from Professor Peter Van Ness, from the introduction to his book, Spirituality and the Secular Quest: “Human existence is spiritual insofar as one engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole.”

Between them, Joseph Chuman and Peter Van Ness invoke the part-whole model of understanding reality as a distinctly spiritual one. And this will probably not come as a surprise to most of us. If pressed to assign some meaning to spirituality, don’t many of us reach for images of ourselves subsumed into larger wholes? Even our High Holiday liturgy book does this when, in that section on Awe and Wonder (formerly Secular Spirituality) I’ve already cited, it pictures us “embraced by the universe” when we are struck by its grander. This reminds me of a dear Cuban friend, who used to sign her messages to me, “un abrazo,” literally: hugs. I won’t object to a hug from the universe.

So now I’m near the close of this exercise. A rational spiritual experience engages our reason working synthetically in tandem with a three-part emotion that includes 1) a visceral feeling, 2) a feeling akin to what we experience when we are deeply moved by nature and art, and 3) an enhanced sense of overall well-being.

Let me end with two short addenda. This exercise has helped me understand why nature and art partner so readily with spirituality. I think it’s because nature and art, like spirituality itself, are also enamored of wholes. I submit that what we appreciate when we appreciate nature or art is a wholeness we sense in them. When an art critic claims of a painting or a literary critic of a novel that to change even a small part of it is to destroy it, they indirectly tribute a cohesion of discrete parts within the whole of that work. And when the astronauts sent us back pictures of the earth they took from space, they raised in most of us a sense of awe over the cohesion of shapes and colors that make our planet, a blue jewel against a black background, in analogy with Shakespeare’s tribute to “this precious stone set in a silver sea” that his England was. It only stands to reason that art, nature, and spirituality would partner in their shared appreciation of the wholes of things.

My second addendum is that the history of Jewish thought offers up to us a model of rational spirituality in the philosophical writings of Moses Maimonides. It was easier to be rationally spiritual in Maimonides’ day. Back in the Middle Ages, scientific reason understood the moon, sun and planets to revolve around the earth, guided in their motions by cosmic intelligences attached to them. To study the moon was to ally with the cosmic reason that moved it and to acquire something of a moon’s-eye view of everything that happens on earth–to see the earth whole, as it were, like our modern astronauts. I think Maimonides was viscerally moved by that prospect towards an awe and wonder that left him close to speechless with joy–a spiritual philosopher if ever there was one. On these grounds, I commend a fine book by Israeli author Micah Goodman, Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed–a best seller in Israel, if you an believe such a thing about a book on Maimonides. You don’t have to doctor Maimonides’ claims in his Guide for the Perplexed too much to make him out a humanist of sorts, certainly a rationalist. And my other recommendation: please join Rabbi Tzemah for his class on Maimonides on February 9 at SAJ. We don’t get many chances to participate in a deeper probe of Maimonides, who for me, at least, sparkles like a jewel in our collective Jewish past. See you then!

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