What of the challenges I have wrestled with both personally and professionally is the modern and popular concept of ‘spirituality.’ I wrestle with it in part because I am not entirely sure what it means when someone says, “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”
The cynic in me has interpreted this to mean, “I’m religious, but I don’t believe in organized religion.” My usual response is, “Don’t kid yourself, we’re not that organized.”
But to be cynical and flip does not help others or myself really understand what it means to be spiritual. To this end, I have had the fortunate opportunity to study with Rabbi Avi Weiss, the Rabbi of Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and the founder and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is based on what he terms, “Open Orthodoxy.”
Open Orthodoxy is an important idea and movement worth exploring, but we will leave that for another blog. But what Rabbi Weiss has taught about spirituality is that it is, “Being in the moment while feeling the presence of God in the moment.” As an example he went on to say, “We sing songs about yesterday and tomorrow, but not songs of today.”
Rabbi Weiss also spoke about how we are, “Always waiting for the next moment, so much so, we fail to live in the moment. But we have to hold on to the moment with open arms.” And the way to do this is to recognize, “Prayer as a love encounter. It is a moment of deep and profound intimacy.”
So ultimately prayer and spirituality should be about connecting us with the Divine, the Holy, with God, with however we imagine that which is beyond us and within us. But for it to be Jewish, we have to take it one step further which is to bring God’s system of ethics into the world. In Rabbi Weiss’ view, spirituality is a means to bringing about the goal of ethical monotheism into the greater world.
But there is another step to meaningful spiritual encounters, and that is to be honest and real in our encounter. As Rabbi David Aaron wrote in Seeing God, “If you want to encounter God’s essence, then you have to be willing to expose your own essence to God. God can only reflect what you’re presenting… You have to be real to see the Real.”
I am learning that spirituality has less to do with the specific prayers, the specific melodies, even the specific gathering or gathering place, and has more to do with who is in that moment, and whether or not they are choosing to be in the moment and acknowledging God in the moment.
And the best we can do as shleichim tzibur (worship leaders) is to 1. Try our best to model being in the moment, and 2. Offer up worship experiences that have the potential to enable others to be in the moment. And when I think about this, perhaps the most important concept is to be genuine and authentic.
This is no easy task. It requires exertion by both the service leader and those in the minyan. For in order for it to work, we ascend while the Shechina descends. And as Rabbi Weiss teaches it is in that intersection we create holistic prayer that “embraces the wider moment and brings it in,” and then enables us to draw it out. “Or as we learn from Psalms (109:4), ‘And I am prayer,’ to which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch adds one word to the translation, ‘And I am all prayer.’”
As Rabbi Weiss goes on to say, “The way I talk and walk and conduct myself in business; the way I eat and love and interact with others; the way I treat the forlorn, the hungry, the homeless – my very being, my very essence, my every endeavor its tefilla – holistic prayer.”
As Chevy Chase said in the greatest golf movie of all time, Caddyshack, “Be the ball.” So too it is with us. To be spiritual means, “to be the prayer.”