The Wings of Morning -
A Torah Review

Yaacov Dovid Shulman

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Volume VII, Issue 39

B'midbar 5763, June 2003

Unless otherwise noted, translations and original material copyright © 2002 by Yaacov Dovid Shulman (

by Yaacov Dovid Shulman

In the introduction to his book, Twerski on Spirituality, Rabbi Avraham Twerski, distinguished scion of a dynasty of Hasidic rebbes, offers his definition of spirituality. Spirituality, Rabbi Twerski offers, is another way of labeling that constellation of characteristics that make us uniquely human–characteristics such as kindness, idealism, regret, and so forth. In short, spirituality is anything that makes us human.

The word "spirituality" is a vague one, and many people who feel spiritual or wish to live in a spiritual manner may not be clear about what they mean. But in a general sense, I believe that the common understanding of the word "spiritual" is something that transcends the ordinary reality of our day-to-day experiences and senses. It is a broader view that can give us a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our day-to-day lives, indicating that our normal reality is not the only one that exists. "Spirituality" can stir us from our normal sense of self and inspire us to at least temporarily act from a different perspective, circumventing our usual personal limitations. Spirituality consists of both an experience and a theoretical explanation and framework for that experience.

None of the preceding has mentioned God, and that is deliberate, because some systems that we may consider "spiritual" do not do so. From my desultory perusal of books written by contemporary Westerners to present Buddhism to other Westerners, I infer the following (my apologies if I mis-state and understate Buddhism). The practitioner focuses on a view of life (its impermanence, and so forth), engages in activity that is designed to evoke a consciousness-changing reaction (sitting and meditating for hours, days and years on end, conferences with a master who challenges one at a deep psychological level), and attains an altered consciousness experience. He then interprets that experience as proof of the truth of Buddhist doctrine.

Perhaps if a person focused on another view of life and used the same technique to attain a conscious-changing reaction, he would find that other view of life verified by his experience.

At any rate, a "spiritual" system (or a "shamanic" system) will combine doctrine leading to a goal with technique leading to an experience. These techniques are typically intrinsically challenging: extended meditation with sensory deprivation, vision quests, and so forth.

And the combination of a profoundly challenging experience with a framework to provide meaning comprises an initiation. Typically, such an initiatory experience is recognized and acknowledged within its culture.

Such an initiation can, in the modern world, be not spiritual or shamanic but psychological. For instance, a self-growth workshop is set up to trigger psychological experiences and breakthroughs while providing support and a way of interpreting one's experiences.

In the modern world, such initiatory experience can be divorced from deeper meaning. In order to experience some sense of non-ordinariness, people go bungee jumping, climb Mt. Everest and so forth.

A spiritual system is focused on the individual and his inner world, with little to say about the outer world. Judaism therefore is not only spiritual, since in Judaism we relate to a God outside of us Who acts in history and Who rewards and punishes us. When we pray to God in the prayer book or learn Torah, there are long passages in which it is hard to relate to Him in the "spiritual" way mentioned above.

But let us use the paradigm of doctrine leading to goal and technique leading to experience to look at Judaism. One way of looking at this is as follows:

1) Doctrine: God has given us the Torah and we relate to Him through that.

2) Goal: We come to a state of consciousness of God (a state that affects all reality).

3) Technique: Performing mitzvot, prayer.

4) Experience: profound awareness of the presence of God.

Without the last ingredient, although there is doctrine, idealism, rite and ritual, there is no spirituality. Spirituality only exists when there is experience.

But since deep personal experience might be no more than a psychological curiosity rather than a confrontation with the divine, there are schools and tendencies within Judaism that look upon such phenomena with skepticism and treat those who seek such phenomena with condescension. A book by a noted contemporary Kabbalist dismisses those who would seek spiritual experiences through such techniques as meditation, informing them that they are merely displaying a desire for pleasurable experience–a desire that must be overcome.

In his Bnai Machshavah Tovah, R. Kalonyumus Kalman Shapiro disagrees with this approach. He agrees that many such experiences may be bogus. But, he says, even if only one out of ten is genuine, that is sufficient. And, he adds, even if an experience is bogus, it is still expressing a person's inner desire to experience spirituality and contact with the divine–and that is genuine.

I would invite the reader to pause at this moment and a consider what he or she considers spiritual–taking into account his own personal experience, ideals and desires, as well as the texts that he has learned.

R. Shapira does not offer a check list of spirituality but some factors that he mentions are:

1) seeing divinity in and through the world;

2) having a strong awareness of the presence of God;

3) having the ability to experience powerful emotions;

4) having the ability to experience powerful visualizations.

Other (and related) terms and ideas that one finds in Jewish teachings are devekut–a sense of union with God; hitlahavut–a powerfully passionate yearning toward God; bitul–a sense of one's self being swept away in the presence of God.

Now let us return to R. Twerski's understanding of what spirituality is: the sum of all those obvious human characteristics that differentiate us from animals.

We could divide a person's experience of the world into three categories: 1) character and morality; 2) religiosity; 3) spirituality. Character and morality refer to a person's maturity, goodness, beneficence and so forth. Religiosity is the framework of a person's life that relates to God, involving rules, actions and the awe or fear of God. Spirituality is the experience of a higher reality and the love of God. (This is my own provisional paradigm.)

In such a paradigm, I would place R. Twerski's definition as belonging to "character and morality" rather than to "spirituality."

With the word "spirituality" applied in such divergent fashions, it is important that a person seeking "spirituality" find a teacher who defines "spirituality" in the same manner as the seeker.

Many rabbis and outreach organizations set up seminars and lectures featuring the words "spirituality," "mysticism" and "Kabbalah." If that idea of "spirituality" does not include the transcendent, the other-worldly, and the confrontation with the Divine, then it is being used so idiosyncratically as to be misleading. It is no wonder that a "spiritual" seeker might find himself frustrated, decide that Judaism is not "spiritual" and move on to those movements that focus on and provide that "spirituality."

Judaism has a powerful system of doctrine. Judaism (and particularly Kabbalistically informed Judaism) presents a cosmic theory of the universe, of history, of suffering and redemption, of individual and global growth, all encompassed within Godliness.

In his introduction to Twerski on Spirituality, R. Twerski dismisses some non-Jewish doctrinal points of view. But I do not think that it suffices to dismiss the theoretical construct of a competing system without providing an experiential framework for one's own. It seems to me that when a system allows that experiential element to fade away, it loses vitality and meaning.

Imagine, for instance, a personal growth seminar in which a person would be asked only to consider engaging in ritual activities and subscribing to a set of beliefs. There would be no expectation that he would experience any deep personal transformation and no framework for dealing with such a transformation should it occur. I do not think that such a seminar would be considered a success. Yet there are talks or seminars on "Jewish spirituality" that offer no more than that. Therefore it is useful that a person interested in "spirituality" should define it for himself so that he will have clarity about the goal that he is pursuing. In addition, it would be very useful to discover what one's mentor considers "spirituality" to be and what are the means to attain it.

Perhaps you think that "spirituality" is "joyful abandon to God," and he thinks that "spirituality" is "knowing God's will." Perhaps you think that the technique to reach the goal of spirituality is ecstatic prayer, whereas he thinks that the technique to reach spirituality is to plumb the depths of Talmud.

In addition, it would be helpful to consider a more amorphous point: what is the correspondence between your desire for spirituality and that of your rabbi (or your synagogue)? If you want to have mystical visions whereas your synagogue desires enthusiastic singing, then you have a mismatch.

One of the tragic aspects of the murder of R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto was that he was unable to produce his intended magnum opus, an encyclopedic work presenting the theory and practice of Hasidic spirituality. However, many teachings by him and other masters do remain. R. Shapira summed up Hasidic spirituality in a statement of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, that when you look at the world, you are looking at God and God is looking at you. Knowing that the ideals of spirituality (defined in such a manner) and the techniques to reach it do exist in the universe of Torah can give us the impetus to find them, utilize them and share them with others.

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