A friend recently challenged me, amid a conversation on religion’s relevance to spirituality, to remember a time where I felt a moment of spiritual transcendence. Without a second thought, I knew exactly, remembering a moment several months ago where my senses heightened, my mind seamlessly suspended rational thought, and my heart opened to receive a sudden deluge of connection to something infinite. Something divine.
The only problem? It hadn’t been in a synagogue. Not at the Kotel. Not even in a moment of private meditation. I had been, of all places, in a Catholic mass after wandering into Notre Dame one Sunday morning in Paris. The choral sopranos echoing through the upper reaches of Gothic arches like angels; the shafts of blue, green and purple light refracting through rose windows and into columns of smoke rising from the swinging censer; the mesmerizing details of gilded frescoes lining the chapel walls. All tools – beautiful as they are – to help me access some place of transcendence. And they did. I strolled back across the Île de la Cité bridge with the feeling that I was missing something. How could I be so pleasantly susceptible to the tools of another tradition, and yet struggle with those of my own?
In a Wexner Heritage seminar this winter, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman encouraged us to understand prayer as dual-purpose. On its face, it’s a communal expression of our most sacred beliefs. But prayer also serves as a tool to help ready our minds to access that place of transcendence and personal connection with the divine. Our prayers’ rhythm, rhyme and repetition were intentionally designed to help us move beyond our routine patterns of rational thought. Counter-intuitively enough, many of us in our seminar agreed that we were better able to pray in a meaningful way when we prayed in Hebrew without understanding the full meaning of what we were saying. Was something wrong with this scenario?
Both Notre Dame and our Heritage seminar left me with the sense that many of us find it easier to reach another level of spiritual awareness when we’re not grappling with the very literal meaning of the content.. Whether in a Catholic mass (where I felt no need to make intellectual sense of symbols and rituals in a tradition that doesn’t pertain to me) or during Hebrew-language prayer (where I can easily forgo reading and internalizing translated meaning), I more readily shut down the critical internal dialogue – what does this mean, how does this pertain to me, to what extent does this represent my personal beliefs – in order to still my mind and access a moment of quiet transcendence. We have an incredible and unique tradition of debate and dialogue within Judaism. But in some moments what we are seeking is somewhere beyond words.
Growing up between Conservative and Reform synagogues, I realize that I never had training in the many Jewish perspectives and tools used to understand spirituality. And as my Hebrew slowly improves after many hours of Ulpan, I recognize the insufficiency of relying on the unintelligibility of a language to allow me to reach a spiritual place within Judaism. At Kabbalat Shabbat services in Tel Aviv last week, I found myself squarely disappointed to suddenly understand the literal meaning of words I’ve recited and sung for years. Many are words written one thousand or more years before me. Many are words whose application to my life and my beliefs does not come readily.
So here is the new personal challenge: to delve into the rich literature of our prayer to interpret and find meaning in a way that resonates with me; to investigate other Jewish tools, perspectives and approaches to accessing the transcendent; and to reach for and incorporate those Jewish rituals and symbols that help me connect with G-d.
As a community of Jewish leaders, I question what role we can play in helping others to do the same. What conversations are we having – or not having – about accessing spirituality in a Jewish context? What traditions, rituals and tools can we leverage and experiment with? What untapped audiences might these topics allow us to better reach? We’re a highly rational bunch. We’re often far more comfortable discussing JCC programming and synagogue budgets, or even Israel and peoplehood, than we are discussing spirituality. It’s squishy stuff. But in an era of voluntary affiliation and widespread spiritual seeking, helping ourselves and others explore these issues through a Jewish lens may prove among the most powerful responses to our question of “Why be Jewish?”.
Vanessa Bartram, a current member of the soon-to-graduate-Miami 11 Wexner Heritage Program, made aliyah in September, 2012. She currently lives in Tel Aviv, skyping or flying in, to finish the second year with her fellow Heritage classmates in Miami 11 and tending to the company she founded and still runs, WorkSquare, LLC. Vanessa, written up recently in Forbes Magazine, founded WorkSquare in 2008 to address the costly and inefficient ways low-wage job seekers traditionally seek employment. In 2012, the Hitachi Foundation recognized Vanessa as an exemplary entrepreneur committed to alleviating poverty while also achieving a profit. Vanessa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.