08 April 2009

An introduction to modern Jewish spirituality

Rabbis from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement pose for a group photograph in Brooklyn, New York, in 2007

Patrick Comerford

The spiritual experiences of other religious traditions:

(2) An introduction to modern Jewish spirituality

Over the past three years, you will have spent much of your time here examining Jewish spirituality as it is presented to us in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, time looking at the spirituality of Jesus as a Jew, and some time debating the clash of spiritualities in the Johannine writings and what is meant in them by the Jews.

But recent and contemporary Jewish spirituality needs to be accepted and understood on its own terms as a modern current in spirituality and one that can both challenge and enrich us.

In looking at scriptural presentations of spiritualities, we sometimes forget that Judaism continued to grow and develop, and that there have been continuing, growing and evolving Jewish spiritualities over the past 20 centuries. An awareness of that will enrich our understanding of the traditions out of which Christianity has grown, and help to contribute towards a spiritually that has a relevant awareness of and that can offer a critique of our society today.

The Jewish contribution to Western culture cannot all be compartmentalised into the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the movies of Woody Allen, amateur dramatic society stagings of Fiddler on the Roof, the novels of Chaim Potok or James Heller, the songs of Bob Dylan, the poems of Leonard Cohen, Erich Segal’s Love Story, the politics and conflicts around Israel, or Madonna’s dabbling in the Kaballah.

Over the centuries, European civilisation and our spirituality have challenged by, have been enriched by and have engaged with innumerable Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including:

● Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who declared that religious faith “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions;

● Karl Marx (1818-1883), who totally changed politics and thinking in the 20th century; and

● Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the father figure of post-modernism, who argued that “we should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent and, what is more … capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of places,” and instead see God as “the structure of conscience.”

The spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the horrors and devastations of the Holocaust has to be very rich, deep and profound, and has to have something vast and beautiful to contribute to our civilisation and our thinking today, and to say to us as we experience and live our lives spiritually.

There is a perception that Jewish religious activity is confined to concerns about the modern state of Israel or debates about the observation of kosher rules and regulations. But there are other sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today.

An introduction to seven key personalities helps to illustrate this: Martin Buber, Simone Weil, Elie Wisel, Lionel Blue, Jonathan Sacks, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, and Michele Guinness.

Personal encounter

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In my youth, I knew the streets of Little Jerusalem, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street in Dublin. There, in Little Jerusalem, my grandfather had cousins who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born. Over the years, I have visited the synagogues in Dublin at Adelaide Road (now closed), Rathfarnham Road and Rathgar, and I have written about and visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Britain, Austria, China, Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Italy, Romania, Turkey, and Israel/Palestine.

Any introduction to Jewish spirituality needs to imagine the profound impact of the Holocaust on Jews collectively and on our society. And any introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to take account of the Hasidic movement, which has influenced many writers outside its own circles.

Hasidism and the Lubavitcher movement

The Lubavitcher movement or Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism, and is based in New York in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn. The movement runs thousands of centres around the world, including community centres, synagogues and schools. The movement has over 200,000 adherents and up to a million Jews attend Chabad services at least once a year.

Chabad is a Hebrew acronym for Choch’ah, Binah and Da’at, meaning Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. The Lubavitch movement takes its name from Lyubavichi, a Russian town that was its headquarters for over a century.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement was founded in the late 18th century by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who developed an intellectual system and approach to Judaism. While other branches of Hasidism focused only on the idea that “God desires the heart,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman argued that he also desires the mind, and that the heart without the mind was useless. He argued that “understanding is the mother of … fear and love of God. These are born of knowledge and profound contemplation of the greatness of God.”

Shneur Zalman was instrumental in the preservation of Hasidism within mainstream Judaism. Avrum Erlich writes that he “allowed for some of the mystically inclined Hasidim to reacquaint themselves with traditional scholarship and the significance of strict halakhic observance and behaviour, concerning which other Hasidic schools were sometimes less exacting. Shneur Zalman also provided the opportunity for traditionalists and scholars to access the Hasidic mood and its spiritual integrity without betraying their traditional scholarly allegiances.”

Shneur Zalman emphasised that mysticism without Talmudic study was worthless – even dangerous. He taught that Torah must be studied joyously – studying without joy is frowned upon. He provided a metaphor: when a mitzvah (commandment) is fulfilled an angel is created. But if the mitzvah was joyless then the angel too will be dispirited.

More recently, his descendant, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), sought to attain unity between opposites. He wanted to unite the mundane aspects of the world with the aspect of godliness in the world. Schneerson emphasised the concept of creating an abode for God in this world. He felt that the world was not a contradiction to the word of God, and it was to be embraced rather than shunned.

Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965), right, was an Austrian-born Israeli philosopher, translator, and educator, whose work centred on theistic ideals of religious consciousness, interpersonal relations, and community. Buber’s evocative, sometimes poetic writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

Although he was a Zionist, Buber was also a staunch supporter of a bi-national, rather than two-state future for Palestine, and after the establishment of the State of Israel he advocated a regional federation of Israel and Arab states.

Martin Buber was born in Vienna into a Jewish family that came from Lviv in present-day Ukraine, where he spent much of his childhood. In his youth, a personal religious crisis led him to break with Jewish religious customs. He started reading Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in particular inspired him to study in philosophy.

In 1898, at the age of 20, he joined the Zionist movement, seeing the potential of Zionism in social and spiritual enrichment. He admired how the Hasidic communities brought their religious beliefs into their daily life and culture, and in 1903, he became involved with the Hasidic movement. A year later, he withdrew from much of his Zionist work and devoted himself to writing. That year he published his thesis on Jakob Böhme, the German Lutheran mystic and pietist who had a strong influence on William Law, and Nikolaus Cusanus, a German cardinal who strongly influenced Christian mysticism.

In 1906, Buber published a collection of the tales of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a renowned Hasidic rebbe. Two years later, he published Die Legende des Baalschem, stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later published in English as I and Thou).

Buber resigned as a professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main in protest immediately after Hitler came to power in 1933, and within months was banned from lecturing. He left Germany in 1938 and settled in Jerusalem, where he became a professor at the Hebrew University, lecturing in anthropology and sociology.

In 1946 he published Paths in Utopia in which he detailed his communitarian socialist views and his theory of the “dialogical community” founded upon inter-personal “dialogical relationships.” He made a number of lecture tours of Europe and the US, and received the Goethe award of the University of Hamburg (1951) and the German Book Trade Peace Prize (1953). He died in 1965 in Jerusalem.

Buber is famous for his synthetic thesis of dialogical existence, described in I and Thou. However, he also dealt with religious consciousness, modernity, the concept of evil, ethics, education, and Biblical hermeneutics.

In I and Thou, Buber introduced his thesis on human existence. Inspired partly by Feuerbach’s concept of the ego and Kierkegaard’s “Single One,” Buber worked on the premise of existence as encounter. He explained this philosophy using the word pairs of Ich-Du and Ich-Es to categorise the modes of consciousness, interaction, and being through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality in general. Philosophically, these word pairs express complex ideas about modes of being – particularly how a person exists and actualises that existence. As Buber argues in I and Thou, a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of these modes.

For Buber, the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (Ich-Du) and monologue (Ich-Es). Ich-Du (“I-Thou”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because they meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas play no role in this relation. In an “I-Thou” encounter, infinity and universality are made actual, rather than being merely concepts.

Despite the fact that Ich-Du cannot be proven as an event, nor can it be measured, Buber stresses that it is real and perceivable. Common English words used to describe the Ich-Du relationship include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange. Buber describes God as the eternal “Du,” and so one key Ich-Du relationship Buber identifies is that between a human being and God. He argues that this is the only way it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.

For Buber, the Ich-Es (“I-It”) relationship is nearly the opposite of Ich-Du. In an Ich-Es relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the “I” confronts and treats the being in its presence as an object. The Ich-Es relationship, therefore, is a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue. In the Ich-Es relationship, an individual treats other things, including people, as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how an object can serve the individual’s interest.

Buber argues that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that Ich-Du experiences are few and far between. In examining the various problems of modern society, such as isolation or dehumanisation, he believes that the expansion of a purely analytic, material view of existence is at the root of Ich-Es relations – even between human beings. Buber argues that this relationship devalues not only those who exist, but the meaning of all existence.

Buber saw Hasidism as a source of cultural renewal for Judaism, frequently citing examples from the Hasidic tradition that emphasised community, inter-personal life, and meaning in common activities. For Buber, the Hasidic ideal was a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on Buber’s philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

However, Buber’s interpretation of the Hasidic tradition has been criticised by other Jewish writers and critics such as Chaim Potok. In his introduction to Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, Potok says Buber overlooked Hasidism’s “charlatanism, obscurantism, internecine quarrels … folk superstition and pietistic excesses, its zaddik worship, its vulgarised and attenuated reading of Lurianic Kabbalah.” Although Buber often uses Hasidism to argue that individual religiosity does not require a dogmatic, creedal religion, Potok accuses Buber of not putting sufficient emphasis on the importance of the Jewish Law in Hasidism.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil (1909-1943), right, was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist, who was born in Paris into an agnostic Jewish family. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her biographer Gabriella Fiori says she was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.”

In 1915, when she was only six, she refused sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front. In 1919, at 10, she declared herself a Bolshevik. In her late teens, she became involved in the worker’s movement. She went on to become a philosophy teacher, wrote political tracts about social and economic issues, took part in the general strike of 1933

Despite her pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War. After clumsily burning herself over a cooking fire, she left Spain to recuperate in Assisi, where she continued to write essays on labour issues, and on war and peace. There, in the church where Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, she had an experience of religious ecstasy in 1937, leading her to pray for the first time in her life.

She had another, more powerful revelation a year later, and from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual. She thought of becoming a Roman Catholic, but declined to be baptised until the very end of her life. She explained this refusal in letters published in Waiting for God. During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. At this time she met the French Catholic writer Gustave Thibon, who later edited some of her work, and joined the French Resistance.

After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, she died in August 1943 in Ashford, Kent, from cardiac failure at the age of 34. Gravity and Grace (1952), one of the books most associated with Simone Weil, consists of passages selected from Weil’s notebooks and edited by Gustav Thibon, a devote Catholic.

Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation, but as a direct expression of God’s love – despite the fact that she also recognises it as a place of evil, affliction, and the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy.

Weil also writes on why she believes spirituality is necessary for dealing with social and political problems, and says that the soul needs food just as the body needs food.

Elie Weisel

Elie Wiesel (born 1928) is a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He is the author of over 40 books, the best known of which is Night, describing his experiences during the Holocaust in several concentration camps. “I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man.” – Elie Wiesel, Night (1958).

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania, the son of an Orthodox Jewish grocer and the grandson of a Hasidic farmer. In 1944, the family was confined to the ghetto and then deported with the rest of the Jewish community in the town to Auschwitz-Birkenau. From Auschwitz, he was sent to Buchenwald, where his father was murdered.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.

“Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.

“Never.” – Elie Wiesel, Night.

After World War II, Wiesel moved to France, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, taught Hebrew and worked as a choirmaster before becoming a journalist with Israeli and French newspapers. When he met Francois Mauriac, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952, Mauriac persuaded him to write about his Holocaust experiences.

In 1955, Wiesel he moved to New York. In the US, he wrote over 40 books and won many literary prizes, founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and was instrumental in the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism.

Wiesel’s novel Night was first published in Yiddish in Buenos Aires, before being published in French and in English (1958). His two volumes of memoirs are All Rivers Run to the Sea (1994) and And the Sea is Never Full (1999). His writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature, and he is credited by some with giving the term “Holocaust” its present meaning.

His statement, “... to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all ...”, stands as a succinct summary of his views on life and serves as the driving force of his work.

Jürgen Moltmann, in The Crucified God, was the first theologian to adapt Elie Wiesel’s graphic and horrific story of a Jewish boy hung by the Nazis along with two men in the camp at Buna (Moltmann wrongly places it in Auschwitz). It took half an hour for the youth to die and, as the men of the camp watched his torment, one asked: “Where is God now?” Wiesel heard a voice within him answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”

While Wiesel interpreted his inner voice as expressing what has now become disbelief in a loving and just God, Moltmann used the story to argue for a God who suffers in union with those who suffer.

Jonathan Sacks

Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks, right, is the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and is a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community. Sacks was born in London in 1948, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of London. Before becoming Chief Rabbi, he was the Principal of Jews’ College, London, the world’s oldest rabbinical seminary, and rabbi of the Golders Green and Marble Arch Synagogues.

Sacks stirred controversy in the Jewish community in England when he refused to attend the funeral service of the late Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn and wrote a private letter in Hebrew that suggested that Reform Jews are “dividers of the faith.” Sacks took a similar controversial stand when he prevented Rabbi Louis Jacobs from being called up for the reading of the Torah on the Saturday before his granddaughter’s wedding. Nevertheless, he has tried to building positive relationships between the Orthodox and Progressive Jewish communities

On the other hand, a group of rabbis, including Rabbi Bezael Rakow, have accused Sacks of heresy in his book The Dignity of Difference, in which he seems to imply that Judaism is not the absolute truth. He amended the next edition of the book, but refused to recall earlier editions. Some rabbis have also condemned him for engaging in ecumenical dialogue and for agreeing to become a joint President of the Council of Christians and Jews.

Dr Sacks is a frequent guest on television and radio shows, and regularly contributes to the national press. In 1990, he delivered the BBC Reith lectures on The Persistence of Faith, later published in an expanded version in 1991. In it, he argues that faiths must remain open to criticism, and while keeping alive their separate communities contribute to national debates and moral issues.

Sacks also engages with the Hasidic spirituality found in the Lubavitcher movement. He argues that in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s system Chochma represents “the creation in its earliest potentiality; the idea of a finite world as was first born in the divine mind. Binah is the idea conceived in its details, the result of contemplation. Da’at is, as it were, the commitment to creation, the stage at which the idea becomes an active intention.”

Sacks argues that this system provided a psychological formulation that enabled the Hasid to substantiate his mystical thoughts. “This was an important advance because bridging the gap between spiritual insight and daily behaviour had always been a problem for Jewish mysticism.”

Lionel Blue

Rabbi Lionel Blue (right) is an English Reform rabbi, journalist and broadcaster, and the first openly gay British rabbi. Blue was born in 1930 in the East End of London in 1930, the only son of a master tailor. He read history at Balliol College, Oxford, and Semitics at the University of London before being ordained a rabbi in 1960.

Today, he is best known for his media work, especially his wry, gentle sense of humour on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, to which he has been a contributor for more than 25 years. His books include: A Backdoor to Heaven (1985), Kitchen Blues (1986), Bolt from the Blue (1986), Tales of Body and Soul (1995), My Affair with Christianity (1999), Sun, Sand and Soul (1999), Kindred Spirits (1999), and Hitchhiking to Heaven – Autobiography (2004).

Through his contributions to Thought for the Day, Blue has given hundreds of thousands of people in Britain their daily ration of spirituality and religion, and has bridged the gap between not only Judaism but all religion and the demands of the secular world.

“Well good morning Sue and good morning John and good morning everybody” is a typical opening for A Thought for the Day. He has said: “I don’t believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people – then your number comes up and you’re called.”

Dan Cohn-Sherbok

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a Reform rabbi, theologian and writer on religion, and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter. He was born in 1945 in Denver, Colorado, and earned his doctorate in philosophy at Cambridge. He has taught the Universities of Kent and Essex, and many other universities.

Contrary to the official position of Reform Judaism, Cohn-Sherbok is sympathetic to Messianic Judaism and Secular Humanistic Judaism, and is interested in Jewish-Buddhist and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He argues that today Judaism is pluriform in nature, that it: no longer has an over-arching authority that can determine correct belief and practice, so that the Jewish community has splintered into a variety of groups, ranging from the strictly Orthodox to the most liberal, with some groups borrowing syncretically from other religious traditions.

In The Crucified Jew (1992), Cohn-Sherbok challenged Christians to face up to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. In Glimpses of God (1994), he invited a variety of writers, Jewish and Christian, to say whether we can find a glimpse of God in the everyday life.

Michele Guinness

Finally, it is worth considering Michele Guinness (right), who bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story. A vicar’s wife and a broadcaster for many years, she has written eight books and is a regular contributor to television, newspapers and magazines.

In her best-selling book, Child of the Covenant (1985), Michele Guinness talks about making sense of being both Jewish and Christian. She grew up in a traditional Jewish family, observing all its rituals and culture. An encounter with a Christian raised many questions for her, and she turned to the Bible for the answers. She was baptised a Christian, but argued that as a member of the Church of England she never lost her sense of being Jewish, and continues to practice many aspects of her Jewish faith. She tells of a Jewish girl rediscovering her roots by finding Christ. As she came face-to-face with Christ as the Messiah, she tried to make sense of being both Jewish and Christian.

She continued that story in the sequel, Promised Land (1989), describing how she and her husband, the Revd Peter Guinness, an Anglican priest, moved to his first parish in “Grimlington,” a town representative of the industrial North of England that turns out to be a promised land for Michele and her family, where they unearth hidden gold.

In Woman – The Full Story (2003), she asks what it means to be a woman today. How does God view this half of humanity? She invites readers on an adventure of discovery, exploring the Biblical texts, the annals of history and the experiences of women today in search of the challenges and achievements, failures and joys, of women throughout the ages.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a seminar with Year III students on the course, “Spirituality for Today,” on 8 April 2009.

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